In popular folklore, the Sons of Liberty were organised, coordinated colonial American groups who took action against British policies from 1765 onwards.
The less fashionable reality is that it was an umbrella term used for any group or individuals who opposed British policy or royal officials, whether by word or action. “Sons of Liberty” was a loosely-applied label rather than a specific group or movement.
Hundreds of locally-based opposition and resistance groups existed between 1765 and 1774. Their motives and grievances varied from place to place, as did their strength and composition. ‘Sons of Liberty’ based in New York City differed considerably from those in rural western Massachusetts.
The phrase “Sons of Liberty” itself came from a speech made in the British parliament by Isaac Barre, who used it while speaking against further taxation of the colonies.
In Boston, there were various small groups who might at one time or another been called ‘Sons of Liberty’. Some had their roots in a shadowy group called the Loyal Nine, a group of artisans and petty merchants who banded together in mid-1765 to oppose the Stamp Act.
Though the Loyal Nine did not include Samuel Adams, they certainly shared his radicalism. It’s also likely that each was known to the other.
From this seed group emerged dozens of similar gangs, cooked up in Boston taverns during the summer of 1765, some with genuine political grievances and some just spoiling for a fight. They were responsible for everything from inciting boycotts, posting handbills and writing broadsides – through to acts of violence, like those perpetrated against Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver in August. The mob that sparked the ‘Boston Massacre’ in 1770 could probably have been described as Sons of Liberty; the men who boarded British ships during the Boston Tea Party (1773) almost certainly were. Sons of Liberty groups developed into more task-specific movements such as the Committees of Correspondence (for circulating revolutionary ideas amongst the other colonies) and the Committees of Safety (for monitoring troop movements and reporting infringements against colonists and their rights).
“There are certain persons among us who, in the common concerns of life… strip themselves of all the social virtues and become the noisiest yelpers in the whole pack. There are others… who for the vain purpose of creating a temporary importance to themselves take pleasure in producing disorder in the machine of government, and wickedly seek occasion to endanger the shipwreck of the commonwealth. How despicable the swagger of a presumptuous demagogue… when the measures he pursues and so strenuously urges appear evidently calculated to produce intestine commotions and public calamity.”
Loyalist pamphlet, 1771
The Sons of Liberty are commonly associated with a number of actions or symbols. The Liberty Tree appears in many items of propaganda; this revolutionary symbol was based on an elm tree in Boston Common, a rallying point for colonial activists as well as the site where effigies were frequently hung. Other symbols include the liberty cap (the red Phrygian bonnet from ancient times, symbolising freedom) the liberty pole (a long slender pole, often topped with the liberty cap) and the rattlesnake (representing watchfulness). The use of tarring-and-feathering is commonly attributed to the Sons of Liberty; although some cases did occur during the American Revolution this brutal form of vigilante justice remained quite rare. Liberty icons appeared on more mundane objects, such as this punchbowl by Paul Revere. Around the bowl are engraved various images and slogans, the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, mention of British Whig leader John Wilkes, and a tribute to the 92 members of Revere’s Sons of Liberty group who defied the British parliament.