Why Paul Revere and Sam Adams’ Time Capsule Matters


Do you remember the time capsule? Is it an idea inherently encased in amber? There’s something beautiful and human about the idea that you will take objects that embody your time, put them in a box, and put that box in the ground or a secret place, to remain until someone finds it now (or eons from now).

On Tuesday night, we got the most joyous version of a time capsule. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, conservationists and curators opened a brass box that was buried beneath the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The ten-pound copper box was discovered by maintenance a month ago, and turned out to be a treasure chest put together by then-Governor Samuel Adams (some of you beer drinkers may know him as a brewer AND a patriot) and Paul Revere, who was then the Grandmaster of the Freemasons of Massachusetts.

There were two layers to this treasure — the founding fathers-era capsule was buried in a leather pouch in 1795, and it was found in 1855, where they added further treasures and reburied the goods in the box. There were newspapers and coins from 1855, while according to Boston.com, “the Revere-era items… included an extremely valuable 1652 pine tree shilling, among other coins, and a silver plate marking the day the box was buried. ‘July 4, 1795, the 20th anniversary of America’s independence.'”

This is an incredible discovery for history and an archeological goldmine, but what’s really striking to me is how it makes the airy — our founding fathers, the men who wrote the laws we wrestle with right now — real. It’s a powerful feeling.

Because even though time is “a flat circle,” and history can “come alive” at your average living history museum, it can be hard to imagine that there are real people behind the ideas that we think about as Americans and humans. Ideas last — the Constitution, that beautiful document, survives, mutates, and endures — but so often, it’s hard to reconcile the idea that there were people building America over 200 years ago, and that they had the oddities, foibles, and quirks that real life people have. They’re too often categorized as ideas, concepts, and living saints of democracy.

For me, this summer I happened upon a signed copy of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. I wasn’t even sure if it was a real signed copy at first. Once I realized that it was genuine — that W.E.B. DuBois was flesh and blood, putting pen to paper — it was a very heady experience. There was this energy coming from the signature. Too often our heroes and our people who survived in history become mere thoughts. It’s a rich experience to see that they were funny, strange people.

So this time capsule is immensely endearing. Adams and Revere wanted to keep records of 1795 for posterity’s sake. They collected coins, newspapers, and a fancy silver plate. They left their mark on America, but they also left their tiny little mark on this silver pouch. Our founding fathers may be abused on a daily basis for the sake of political arguments, but underneath it all, they were some guys that wanted us to know what their coins looked like and that America was celebrating its 20th anniversary. They were proud of their work. They actually existed.