The Sons of Liberty

sons of liberty
A Boston newspaper report on the ‘Tree of Liberty’, an important rallying point

In folklore, the Sons of Liberty were organised, coordinated colonial groups that took radical action against unpopular British policies from 1765 onwards. The reality is that ‘Sons of Liberty’ was an umbrella term that described a range of individuals and groups who opposed British policy and actions. This included groups like the Boston Loyal Nine and the various Committees of Correspondence and Safety. Whatever their membership and focus, the Sons of Liberty became seed groups for revolutionary thought and action.

Organised colonial resistance

Between 1765 and 1775, there were hundreds of colonial groups engaged in protesting or resisting British policy. Because their grievances varied from place to place, they tended to be local, based in a particular city, town or county.

The membership of these groups could range from just a handful of people to a few hundred. They could form in several ways: from informal gatherings in taverns, churches or community events, as offshoots of town meetings or assemblies, from discussions between likeminded political and business interests.

The origin of the name ‘Sons of Liberty’ is well documented. It comes from a speech delivered by Isaac Barré, an Irish-born British member of parliament who was sympathetic to colonial protests against British taxation. In February 1765, during parliamentary debates on the future Stamp Act, Barré famously rose and said of the American colonists:

“They grew by your [Parliament’s] 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… to misrepresent their actions and to prey upon them; men whose behavior on many occasions has caused the blood of those Sons of Liberty to recoil within them.”

Boston groups

Different groups could be found across the colonies but Boston was the wellspring for active Sons of Liberty chapters. The Massachusetts capital contained several bands of dissidents who carried the name at one time or another.

Some of the first militant groups in Boston was dominated by the affluent classes. The Boston Caucus Club had actually been established almost 50 years before the Stamp Act. Dominated by businessmen, the Boston Caucus became a significant political force, often agitating against British policy or decisions of the royal governor. Its membership included Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.

Another group that formed after the passage of the Stamp Act was the Loyal Nine. This group was comprised of rowdier working-class elements led by a local cobbler, Ebenezer Mackintosh. They were actively encouraged and likely sponsored by affluent businessmen like John Hancock – men happy to see riotous action against British officials but unwilling to be directly associated with it.

From this seed groups emerged dozens of similar gangs, cooked up in Boston taverns during the summer of 1765. Some of their members joined with genuine political grievances while some were just spoiling for a fight with unpopular British officials or soldiers.

Involvement in violence

These groups that emerged in 1765 were responsible for everything from inciting boycotts, posting handbills and writing broadsides, through to intimidation of officials and Loyalists, mobbish behaviour and acts of destruction and violence.

In the summer of 1765, members of the Loyal Nine, along with other Sons of Liberty groups, began meeting around a large elm tree on Boston Common. On August 14th, the group produced an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the local official commissioned to implement the Stamp Act, and hanged it from the branches. A smaller group then attacked his house and offices, prompting a worried Oliver to resign his commission.

Two weeks later, a mob reassembled and set upon Oliver’s brother-in-law Thomas Hutchinson, the Massachusetts lieutenant-governor. Hutchinson had, in fact, opposed the Sugar Act and Stamp Act but as a Loyalist conservative, he had committed to uphold them. The gang invaded Hutchinson’s home, looting anything of value and destroying much else. Hutchinson and his family narrowly escaped and were later compensated by the local assembly.

The threats, intimidation and violence carried out by these groups worked. Within a few weeks, every individual appointed as an agent to distribute tax stamps in the colonies had resigned, making the Stamp Act impossible to implement.

Task-specific groups

Satisfied for now, the mob violence in Boston dissipated and working-class protestors returned to their jobs. Various Sons of Liberty groups continued to meet but they evolved into more organised, task-specific committees. They still aimed to reverse British policy but to do so through more conventional means.

The passing of the Townshend duties in 1767 led to the formation of various non-importation associations. These Sons of Liberty groups worked to convince their fellow colonists to boycott imported goods containing a British tax. They were also not averse to using intimidation against customs officials, importers who dealt in taxed goods or local merchants who sold them.

Other form of group that emerged in 1772 were Committees of Correspondence. The intention of these groups was to organise and promote opposition, chiefly by circulating criticism of British policy and encouraging others to join protests against it. Samuel Adams was a key figure in the Massachusetts Committees of Correspondence, while Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were influential in Virginia.

When armed conflict became imminent in early 1775, a new form of committee emerged called Committees of Safety. These groups were less concerned about protest and more with mobilising the colonies for a future war. Among their activities were organising militias, gathering or seizing essential supplies, and reporting on British military activities, such as troop movements.

Groups outside Boston

Sons of Liberty groups were not confined to the Massachusetts capital. A sizeable group formed in New York in early 1765. Like the Boston chapter, they met secretly but focused on organisation and propaganda more than mob action. The New York group played an important role in organising and hosting the Stamp Act Congress.

Boston-style riots erupted in New York shortly before the stamp tax was due to go into effect. On the evening of October 31st, a mob of several hundred conducted a symbol funeral for ‘Liberty’. In the days that followed, they burned effigies of George Grenville and local Loyalists.

In Charleston, local politician Christopher Gadsden returned from the Stamp Act Congress dissatisfied and established a Sons of Liberty group there. South Carolina’s Sons of Liberty were particularly active in the autumn of 1765, hanging effigies of local stamp agents and intimidating merchants. In New Jersey, Sons of Liberty members set alight an effigy of the Loyalist speaker.

Sons of Liberty groups also existed in Virginia and Maryland but chiefly among the political classes rather than as popular movements.

Symbols and slogans

Individuals in the Sons of Liberty, such as Paul Revere, were also responsible for producing and distributing anti-British propaganda. In doing so, they used several symbols, slogans and tropes.

The large elm on Boston Common, mentioned above as a rallying point for assemblies, became an important symbol for the Sons of Liberty. During the frenetic activity of 1765, the group often erected a liberty pole, while some revolutionary propaganda also features a red Phrygian bonnet or ‘liberty cap’. Both symbols have their origin in the liberation of slaves in ancient Rome.

Various Sons of Liberty groups also adopted flags. In 1767, the Boston chapter unfurled a banner dubbed the ‘Rebellious Stripes’. It contained nine red and white stripes, one for each of the colonies that attended the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765. A similar flag containing 13 stripes, one for every colony, was also used.

Often depicted in colonial propaganda on both sides is the practice of tarring and feathering. This brutal act of violence, usually carried out by mobs, involves brushing or dousing the victim in hot pine tar and coating them with feathers. While not deadly, it was agonising, potentially disfiguring and publicly humiliating for the victim.

Historians believe between 60 and 80 individuals were tarred and feathered during the revolutionary period. The first recorded incident was in Virginia in 1766 against William Smith, who had informed customs officials about acts of smuggling. Perhaps the worst case was against John Malcom, a Boston Loyalist and customs officer, who was tarred and feathered twice in the space of three months in 1773-74.

“The name ‘Sons of Liberty’ was widely used after the report of Barre’s speech against the Stamp Act spread through the colonies. At first, there was no formal organisation and the name was used by various groups, whether the purpose was the passage of resolutions or the tearing down of a house. By the end of 1765, however, the Sons of Liberty were well organised action groups in several colonies, led by men who were willing to use force to achieve their ends when defeated in the realm of legal political action.”
Merrill Jensen, historian

sons of liberty

1. Sons of Liberty was a name given to a variety of colonial groups and individuals that opposed British policy, particularly the Stamp Act and Townshend acts.

2. The first of these groups formed in Boston and New York in early 1765. In Boston, they formed around groups such as the Loyal Nine, comprised chiefly of working-class men.

3. Boston’s Sons of Liberty were very active through 1765 and engaged in protest, intimidation of officials and a degree of violence against Loyalist targets.

4. Later, Sons of Liberty groups became more task-focused, concentrating on responses like propaganda, non-importation, boycotts and correspondence committees.

5. Sons of Liberty groups employed a range of symbols, slogans and tropes to carry their message, such as various flags and liberty devices.

Citation information
Title: ‘The Sons of Liberty’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/sons-of-liberty
Date published: July 16, 2019
Date updated: November 22, 2023
Date accessed: April 12, 2024
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