The Sons of Liberty was a group of political dissidents that formed in the North American British colonies during the early days of the American Revolution in Boston, Mass.
The following are some facts about the Sons of Liberty:
- The Sons of Liberty formed to protest the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765. The Stamp Act was a tax that required printed materials in the colony, such as newspapers and legal documents, to be published on paper produced in London and embossed with the revenue stamp.
- The colonists resented the Stamp Act and felt that being taxed without their consent was a violation of their rights as British citizens.
The Loyal Nine
When the Sons of Liberty first formed in the summer of 1765, the group was originally known as the Loyal Nine, which consisted of nine Boston shopkeepers and artisans:
- John Avery Jr, distiller
- JHenry Bass, merchant and cousin to Samuel Adams
- JThomas Chase, distiller
- JThomas Crafts, painter
- JStephen Cleverly, brazier
- JBenjamin Edes, printer of the Boston Gazette
- JJoseph Field, ship captain
- JJohn Smith, brazier
- JGeorge Trott, jeweler
- The ninth member was either Henry Welles, a mariner, or Joseph Field, master of a vessel.
How the Sons of Liberty Got Their Name
The term “the Sons of Liberty” actually came from a debate over the Stamp Act in Parliament in February of 1765, during which Irishman Isaac Barre made a speech defending the colonists and criticizing the British government’s actions against them, according to the book The Eve of the Revolution:
“[Were] they nourished by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect of them. As soon as you began to care about them, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule over them, in one department and another… sent to spy out their liberty, to misrepresent their actions and to prey upon them; men whose behaviour on many occasions has caused the blood of these sons of liberty to recoil within them…”
When the group officially expanded and adopted the name “The Sons of Liberty” is not known since the secretive group left virtually no paper trail.
Sons of Liberty & the Stamp Act Riot
What is known about the group is that in August of 1765, the Loyal Nine acquired the help of Ebenezer McIntosh, a local cordwainer and leader of the South End Pope’s Day Company (Pope’s Day was the Boston colonial version of Guy Fawkes Day) to pull off its first protest, according to the book A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere:
“On the morning of August 14, 1765, Bostonians witnessed a ritual of protest similar to the mocking, world-turned-upside-down festivities of the Pope’s Day processions. The Loyal Nine prepared effigies of Andrew Oliver, the stamp master, and Lord Bute, the king’s favorite, who, though out of office since the end of 1763, was considered the instigator of the unpopular revenue measures. McIntosh’s men, mostly artisans from the lower ranks of the craft hierarchy, laborers and mariners, hung the effigies from a large elm tree at Essex and Orange Streets in the South End, a tree soon to become famous as Liberty Tree. A label on the breast of Oliver’s effigy praised liberty and denounced ‘Vengence on the Subvertors of it,’ and another label warned: ‘He that takes this down is an enemy to his country.’ At sunset, forty or fifty artisans and tradesman took down the effigies and carried them in a procession to Andrew Oliver’s dock, where the mob leveled a building they believed would be the stamp office, and then to Fort Hill, where they burned the figures. In his journal, John Boyle stressed that the procession was ‘followed by a great concourse of people, some of the highest reputation, and in the greatest order.’ At this point, the less genteel members of the mob, led my McIntosh and angered by Thomas Hutchinson’s attempts to disperse them, proceeded to wreak havoc on Andrew Oliver’s house, pulling down fences, breaking windows, looking glasses, and furniture, stripping his trees of fruit, and drinking his wine.”
The following night, August 15, the mob formed a blockade in front of Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion, demanding that he denounce the Stamp Act in his official letters to London.
Hutchinson, a loyalist who had written the book The History of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay in which he condemned a revolt by Boston citizens in 1689 against the rule of governor Sir Edmund Andros, refused. A few weeks later, on August 26, the mob returned.
“The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering,” print by Philip Dawe, circa 1774
After attacking the homes of William Story, deputy register of the Vice-Admiralty Court, and Benjamin Hallowell, comptroller of customs, they then attacked Hutchinson’s house.
Hutchinson and his family were able to escape the home just minutes before the mob arrived. Upon breaking into the mansion, the mob destroyed Hutchinson’s furniture, wrecked the garden, tore out the windows, walls, wainscoting, tiles and even tore down the cupola on the roof.
In addition, they stole the contents of his wine cellar, £900 in sterling, every valuable object in his home and destroyed his collection of books and papers from his research for his history book.
Members of the Sons of Liberty: 1st Row: Samuel Adams • Benedict Arnold • John Hancock • Patrick Henry • James Otis, Jr. 2nd Row: Paul Revere • James Swan • Alexander McDougall • Benjamin Rush • Charles Thomson 3rd Row: Joseph Warren • Marinus Willett • Oliver Wolcott • Christopher Gadsden • Haym Salomon
For a number of years after the Stamp Act riot, the Sons of Liberty organized annual celebrations to mark the event, which consisted of parades and gatherings at the Liberty Tree on Boston Common or large dinners, known as “Liberty dinners,” under a tent at the Liberty Tree Tavern in Dorchester.
By the end of 1765, Sons of Liberty groups had sprouted up in every state in the colony.
Women also joined the cause by forming local chapters of the Daughters of Liberty, which organized spinning groups to spin cloth and supported a boycott against British imports.
Members of the Sons of Liberty
Due to the secret nature of the Sons of Liberty, the group never kept any official rosters of its members. Yet, in 1869 a handwritten list titled “An Alphabetical List of the Sons of Liberty Who Dined at the Liberty Tree, Dorchester Aug. 14, 1769” was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Paul Revere, one of the most famous members of the Sons of Liberty, was reportedly admitted to the group because he had many qualities that they found desirable in their members, according to the book A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere:
“Esther Forbes wrote that the leaders of the Revolution in Boston admitted Paul Revere into their society ‘because they wished the sympathy of the large artisan class with whom he was immensely popular, and he represented an important point of view.’ His position as a respected master artisan whose ties of business and friendship connected him to Boston’s artisans, mariners, merchants and Freemasons surely made Paul Revere a desirable member of the patriot cause…Revere’s Masonic experience taught him both to know when to defer to those of superior authority and achievement and when and how to exercise leadership. Revere had also learned to appreciate the opportunity of enlightening his mind through reading, discussion, and fellowship with like-minded men. Revere’s standing in the community, his personality, and his Masonic experience would all make him a worthy member of the patriot circle.”
Public Reaction to the Sons of Liberty:
Newspapers across the colonies praised the Sons of Liberty, calling them “the only guardians and protectors of of the rights and liberties of America” and encouraged them to continue their activities.
Yet, the general public were not as enamored with the group, according to the book The Founding of a Nation:
“The glowing picture of the Sons of Liberty presented by the newspapers was not accepted by many alarmed Americans who looked upon them as nothing but dangerous, and all too often drunken, mobs. Naturally they kept such opinions to themselves or wrote of them in private letters to friends whom they could trust. There is no doubt that the leaders often found the mobs hard to control. In New York, even children paraded at night carrying effigies and candles. Mobs sometimes appeared on the streets in daytime, as upon the occasion when a British naval lieutenant said that John Holt of the New York Gazette ought to be sent to England and hanged ‘for the licentiousness of his papers.’ For three days mobs paraded the streets, threatening to murder the lieutenant, and order was not restored until General Gageprovided the commanders of the naval vessel with extra arms.”
“A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practised at Boston,” print, circa 1774. Print shows two men tarring and feathering a British customs officer and forcing him to drink tea. The man holding the teapot is wearing a hat with number 45 on it, a symbol referring to the John Wilkes case of 1763. The other man is holding a noose and carrying a club. The large bow in his hat indicates his membership in the Sons of Liberty.
After nearly a year of protests, the Sons of Liberty were finally victorious in March of 1766 when Parliament decided to repeal the Stamp Act.
The group organized celebrations across the city to mark the occasion, which included bonfires, fireworks, celebratory cannon fire, ringing church bells and decorating ships and houses with flags and streamers.
Since the group’s primary objective was to protest the Stamp Act, it disbanded after the act was repealed.
Yet, the group was revived two years later when the passage of the Townshend Act threatened the colonist’s rights once again, according to the book Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in America:
“In 1768, the Townshend Revenue Act was passed, placing special taxes on common goods such as lead, paint, glass, paper and tea. The Townshend Act garnered an even quicker response from colonists than the Stamp Act. The newly revived Sons of Liberty embarked on a two-year campaign against the Townshend Acts, playing a vital role in spreading rebellion throughout the colonies. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty invited hundreds of citizens to dine with them each August 14 to commemorate the first Stamp Act uprising. In Charlestown, the Sons of Liberty held their meetings in public, so that all could attend and listen. This helped spread the word of resistance to ordinary folks, including the illiterate who could not read pamphlets, newspapers or petitions….The Sons of Liberty helped to establish and enforce a boycott on British goods, causing trade to dry up. It was not long before the British merchants stepped in on behalf of the colonies and the Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770, except for the tax on tea. This would lead to one of the most infamous chapters of American history, the Boston Tea Party.”
Sons of Liberty & the Boston Tea Party:
This controversy over the tea tax was made worse by the passage of the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed for tea sold by British companies to be shipped directly to the colonies and sold at a discount. As the tax on tea was still in place, this act was a subtle way to persuade colonists to comply with the tax.
The act served two purposes, it helped prop up the struggling East India Company, whose sales had taken a huge hit when the colonists started to boycott imported tea after the passage of the Townshend Act, and it goaded colonists into complying with the tax.
The colonists were not pleased. They saw through the British government’s plan and the Sons of Liberty groups across the colonies responded by chasing away the tea ships in New York and Philadelphia or abandoning the cargo on the docks in Charlestown.
In Boston, the group threatened captains with tarring and feathering until the whole issue came to a head in December of 1773, when colonists refused to let three cargo ships carrying British tea, the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver, dock in Boston harbor and unload its cargo.
A series of meetings were held, first at Faneuil Hall, then at the Old South Meetinghouse when the number of attendees grew too big for Faneuil Hall to accommodate.
During the meetings, a series of proposals and counter-proposals were explored but ultimately, on December 16th, Hutchinson refused to send the ships back to England and ordered the colonists to stop blocking the ships from landing.
According to various sources, the Sons of Liberty had anticipated this response and activated their secret plan to rush to the harbor where they rowed out to the ships and threw 90,000 pounds of tea into the harbor. This protest became the group’s most famous act of rebellion.
The identity of all the participants in the Boston Tea Party is not completely known but it has been confirmed that at least four of the Loyal Nine: Thomas Chase, Thomas Crafts, Benjamin Edes and Stephen Cleverly, as well as several Sons of Liberty: including Paul Revere and Thomas Young, participated.
The Sons of Liberty continued to be active until the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 and the group finally disbanded.
- “Sons of Liberty.” Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/objects/
- Carp, Benjamin L.”Terms of Estrangement: Who Were the Sons of Liberty?” Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, www.history.org/Foundation/
- “Sons of Liberty.” Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, www.bostonteapartyship.com/
- The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism. Edited by John Breuilly. Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Jensen, Merrill. The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776. Hackett Publishing Company, 1968.
- Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History. Edited by Steven Laurence Danver. Vol. I, ABC-CLIO, 2011.
- Becker, Carl. The Eve of the Revolution. Yale University Press, 1918.
- Triber, Jayne E. A True Republican: The Life of Paul Revere. University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.