Thomas Jefferson Papers

Samuel Adams Wells to Thomas Jefferson, 14 April 1819

From Samuel Adams Wells

Boston April 14. 1819


The motive which induces me to do myself the honor of writing to you will I hope be considered a sufficient apology for the freedom.

I have heretofore endeavoured to find some gentleman, whose talents, education and principles rendered him competent to write the biography of my late grandfather Samuel Adams, to undertake the work: But not having succeeded, I have attempted it myself, more with a view to preserve the existing facts, than with a hope of being able to render full justice to his character. The subject has been neglected too long: the most valuable part of his papers are lost or destroyed, so that a full and perfect knowledge of his public life and services cannot be obtained. It is a task which I have deemed it my duty to attempt to perform, as a longer delay may entirely obliterate those impressions, that have already become too faint to be traced with ease and accuracy.

In my investigations, I have met with contradictory accounts of very plain and important facts; and in some instances with oral narratives entirely at variance with written contemporaneous statements. Such occurrencies tend to weaken our belief in all historical relations which are not confirmed by concurrent testimony that is nearly equal to a mathematical demonstration. It may however be considered a little surprising, that the people generally of this country should entertain opinions so erroneous of the real causes of our revolution, and of the views and objects of those who were the chief promoters of it, when the means of information were so abundant, and the people themselves so well qualified to form correct judgements.

The imperfect record of the proceedings of the congresses prior to the Declaration of Independence, has buried in obscurity much important information relating to congress as a body and to the individuals of whom it was composed. Thus we are taught to believe that the question of the declaration was passed unanimously; but by mr Galloways examination before a committee of the British parliament on American affairs, an account of which was published in London in 1779. it appears: “That the debates lasted nearly a fortnight and when the question was put six colonies divided against six; the delegates for Pennsylvania being also divided, the question remained undecided. However, one of the members of that colony who had warmly opposed it being wrought upon by Mr Adams’ art, changed his opinion, and upon the question the next day it was carried in the affirmative1 by a single vote only.” This is a very different account from that given in the printed journals, which we know to be incorrect particularly as it respects the time when it is stated to have been passed and the signatures attached to it.—

Nor will it appear strange when the facts are known that there should be a difference of opinion, whether or not “Committees of correspondence” originated in Virginia or Massachusetts? Having observed one side of this question was publicly supported by the authority of your name, I hope you will pardon me, if I state the real fact as it appears by the official records of the times.

This institution was established in Boston November 2. 1772, on a motion of my grandfather at a public town meeting to the following purport: “To state the rights of the colonists, and of this province in particular, as men, as christians and as subjects; to communicate and publish the same to the several towns in this province, and to the world, as the sense of this town, with the infringements and violation[s] thereof, that have been, or from time to time may be made; also to request of each town a free communication of its sentiments on these subjects.”

This vote and its consequent proceedings, were transmitted to Virginia, and received while their House of Burgesses was in session March 1773, when they appointed a committee to correspond with the several colonies, and transmitted their resolves to the speakers of the different assemblies, requesting the appointment of similar committees.

The speaker of the Massachusetts House of Assembly laid the subject before this body at the next session, and in consequen[ce] they appointed a committee of fifteen of their members for the specified objects. Thus in Massachusetts there were two committees of correspondence, one chosen by the people, the other appointed by th[e] House of assembly: In the former Massachusetts preceded Virginia; in the latter Virginia preceded Massachusetts.—

My principal object in troubleing you at this time is to ascertain the truth of some circumstances which have been stated to me relating to the public character of my grandfather. I appeal to you with confidence for the necessary confirmation, from a knowledge of the mutual friendship and esteem that existed between you and him and which is so very warmly expressed in the few letters that passed some years before his death.—It has been stated—

1st That the expedition against the English possessions in Canada in 1775 was in consequence of a plan laid down by him?

2d That on the question of the Declaration of Independence, he spoke several hours, and that the arguments he adduced in its support were so cogent and conclusive, that he brought over some of those who were against it, and thereby secured its success? These assertions were made by the late Judge Paine.—

3d That the articles of confederation were principally drawn by him? He was one of the committee chosen to prepare a frame of government at that time.—

4. That he delivered an Oration at Philadelphia in 1776? If so what were its merits and effects?—

If there be any erroneous opinions here stated on any of2 these subjects, I shall receive it as a great favor if you will have the goodness to point them out, or if otherwise to confirm them.—The American revolution is a subject of increasing interest, and it requires only to be fully known to be justly appreciated. The spirit of enquiry which now prevails, I hope, will bring to light much new and valuable information. It seems, for that purpose, to be necessary, that the characters of those who had the chief agency in producing our independence should be more perfectly and universally known. If purity of principle, love of country, and patriotism with all its sublime attributes, can excite the respect and admiration of mankind, such an effect cannot fail to be produced by the examples that are furnished in the rise and progress of the American revolution.—

With the greatest respect and veneration, I have the honor to be

Your most humble and obedient Servant

S. A. Wells

RC (DLC); edge chipped and trimmed; at foot of text: “Honorable Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 1 May 1819 and so recorded in SJL.

Samuel Adams Wells (1787–1840), merchant, biographer, and insurance-company executive, was the grandson of the Massachusetts governor and revolutionary leader Samuel Adams. He ultimately prepared three manuscript volumes on the life and letters of his famed predecessor, a body of work that passed after his death to the American historian George Bancroft and was later used by Wells’s son while preparing his 1865 biography of Adams. Wells worked as a merchant in Boston from at least 1813. He delivered a Fourth of July oration there in 1819, copies of which John Adams sent to TJ, James Madison, and James Monroe, and he was a delegate at a convention called to revise the state constitution in 1820. Following unsuccessful attempts to become a federal claims commissioner and naval agent, Wells served as president of the Atlas Insurance Company in Boston, 1824–40. He died in nearby Dorchester (James Spear Loring, The Hundred Boston Orators appointed by the Municipal Authorities and Other Public Bodies, from 1770 to 1852 [1852], 391; Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, containing Boston Births from A.D. 1700 to A.D. 1800 [1894], 337; William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, 3 vols. [1865], esp. 1:vi–vii; The Boston Directory [Boston, 1813], 257; Wells, An Oration, pronounced July 5, 1819, at the request of the republicans of the town of Boston, in commemoration of the anniversary of American Independence [Boston, 1819]; John Adams to Monroe, 19 June, and Adams to Wells, 6 Aug. 1819 [Lb in MHi: Adams Papers]; DNA: RG 59, LAR, 1817–25; Boston Columbian Centinel, 11 Dec. 1824; Stimpson’s Boston Directory [1840], 422; DNA: RG 29, CS, Mass., Boston, 1820, 1830, Dorchester, 1840; Portsmouth [N.H.] Journal of Literature and Politics, 29 Aug. 1840).

mr galloways examination: The Examination of Joseph Galloway, Esq; Late Speaker of the House of Assembly of Pennsylvania. Before the House of Commons, in a Committee on the American Papers (London, 1779; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3134), quote on p. 5. TJ and Samuel Adams exchanged a few letters between 1799 and 1801, with the former commenting on 26 Feb. 1800 that the resumption of contact “after three & twenty years of separation has given me a pleasure I cannot express” (PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, James P. McClure, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 42 vols. description ends , 31:265–6, 395, 33:487–8, 35:687). The oration at philadelphia, now generally believed to be spurious, was An Oration Delivered at the State-House, in Philadelphia, to A very numerous Audience; On Thursday the 1st of August, 1776; By Samuel Adams (London, 1776).

1Preceding three words interlined.

2Preceding two words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); and American invasion of Canada search
  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); and Articles of Confederation search
  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); and Declaration of Independence search
  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); and Mass. Committee of Correspondence search
  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); orations of search
  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); proposed biography of search
  • American Revolution; and committees of correspondence search
  • American Revolution; books on search
  • American Revolution; disputes over origin of search
  • American Revolution; historiography of search
  • American Revolution; speeches delivered during search
  • Articles of Confederation, U.S. search
  • books; on American Revolution search
  • Canada; American invasions of search
  • Continental Congress, U.S.; and Declaration of Independence search
  • Declaration of Independence; debate on search
  • Galloway, Joseph; The Examination of Joseph Galloway, Esq; Late Speaker of the House of Assembly of Pennsylvania. Before the House of Commons, in a Committee on the American Papers search
  • Great Britain; parliament of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; and Va. Committee of Correspondence search
  • Massachusetts; committees of correspondence search
  • Massachusetts; legislature of search
  • Paine, Robert Treat (1731–1814); and Declaration of Independence search
  • Revolutionary War; American invasion of Canada search
  • The Examination of Joseph Galloway, Esq; Late Speaker of the House of Assembly of Pennsylvania. Before the House of Commons, in a Committee on the American Papers (J. Galloway) search
  • United States; Articles of Confederation search
  • Virginia; Committee of Correspondence search
  • Virginia; House of Burgesses search
  • Wells, Samuel Adams; and history of American Revolution search
  • Wells, Samuel Adams; and proposed biography of S. Adams search
  • Wells, Samuel Adams; identified search
  • Wells, Samuel Adams; letters from search