Sons of Liberty

Sons of Liberty Illustration
Green Dragon Tavern, Union Street, 1898. Boston Public Library.

Sons of Liberty: The Masterminds of the Boston Tea Party

The Sons of Liberty, a well-organized Patriot paramilitary political organization shrouded in secrecy, was established to undermine British rule in colonial America and was influential in organizing and carrying out the Boston Tea Party. The origins and founding of the Sons of Liberty is unclear, but history records the earliest known references to the organization to 1765 in the thriving colonial port cities of Boston and New York. More than likely, the Boston and New York chapters of the Sons of Liberty were deliberately established at the same time and worked as an underground network in conjunction with each other. It is believed the Sons of Liberty was formed out of earlier smaller scale like-minded Patriot organizations such as the “Boston Caucus Club” and “Loyal Nine.” Membership was made up of males from all walks of colonial society but was notorious in recruiting tavern mongers, wharf rats, and other seedy characters looking to cause trouble. Under the cover of darkness, the Boston chapter of the organization held their meetings under the “Liberty Tree,” and the New York chapter under the “Liberty Pole.” The “Liberty Tree” was located in Hanover Square, “the most public part” of Boston and was a 120-year-old “stately elm” with branches that “seem’d to touch the skies” according to the Boston Gazette. Taverns, with owners sympathetic to the Patriot cause, were also the favorite meeting places of the Sons of Liberty. The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston was the tavern of choice for meetings of the Sons of Liberty. Despite very little documentary evidence as to the origins of the organization, Boston Patriot Samuel Adams is often credited as being the founder and leader of the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty was most likely organized in the summer of 1765 as a means to protest the passing of the Stamp Act of 1765. Their motto was, “No taxation without representation.”

“The Sons of Liberty on the 14th of August 1765, a Day which ought to be for ever remembered in America, animated with a zeal for their country then upon the brink of destruction, and resolved, at once to save her…” ~ From a 1765 Boston Gazette article written by Samuel Adams referring to the anti-Stamp Act activists for the first time in print as “Sons of Liberty”
Illustration of the Sons of Liberty
The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering, 1774. Library of Congress.
“These Sons of Liberty”

The name Sons of Liberty was derived from a 1765 debate in Parliament over the Stamp Act. During the debate, Stamp Act supporter Charles Townshend made a disapproving statement of the American colonists. Irishman and Member of Parliament, Isaac Barré, stood up and defended the American colonists. He was reprimanded for positively speaking in favor of them calling the colonists “these Sons of Liberty.” Being an Irishman, Barré shared many of the same views as the American colonists and was an advocate for their cause. Additionally, Barré had served in North America as a Colonel in the British Army during the French and Indian War. The debate took stock in the colonies, and the name was admirably used by the Patriot organization.

Incited by the Sons of Liberty, thousands gathered and a sign was placed on the effigy of Andrew Oliver declaring, “He that takes this down is an enemy to his country.” The riotous, angry, and alcohol fueled crowd paraded the effigy through the streets of Boston inciting supporters of the Patriot cause throughout the city.

Boston’s Tumultuous August of 1765

The first major action of the Sons of Liberty was carried out in Boston on August 14, 1765, in response to the Stamp Act. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty gathered under the “Liberty Tree” where effigies of Andrew Oliver, a public official in charge of enforcing the Stamp Act in Massachusetts, and related offenders of the people’s liberties hung. Incited by the Sons of Liberty, thousands gathered and a sign was placed on the effigy of Andrew Oliver declaring, “He that takes this down is an enemy to his country.” The riotous, angry, and alcohol-fueled crowd paraded the effigy through the streets of Boston inciting supporters of the Patriot cause throughout the city. Soon mob rule was the order of the day, and the effigy was stomped-on, beheaded, and ultimately burned in a fit of anger. The crowd, with the Sons of Liberty leading the way, marched on the home of Andrew Oliver. The fence around Oliver’s home was torn down, windows were smashed, furnishings destroyed, and the home looted – most notably Oliver’s personal wine cellar. The ironic truth of the matter was Andrew Oliver privately was not a proponent of the Stamp Act. Rather, he was an obvious and easy target for the Sons of Liberty to take out their anger over the Stamp Act and accuse him of duplicity. As a result, on August 17, Oliver publicy resigned his commission and on December 17, the Sons of Liberty made him publicly swear an oath he would never again serve as a stamp master. It is unknown if Samuel Adams played a role in the organization and leading of the events of August 14, 1765, but by the days immediately following, he was known as a prominent leader of the organization.

The Son’s of Liberty and the Stamp Act

The Sons of Liberty next took their anger over the Stamp Act to the brother-in-law of Andrew Oliver, Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts. By the time of the Stamp Act, Hutchinson was not very popular with many people of Boston. He was a known Loyalist, and a year earlier he published a history of Massachusetts condemning the 1689 revolt by Boston citizens against the rule of then unpopular governor Sir Edmund Andros. On the evening of August 15, 1765, the Sons of Liberty and others blockaded the Boston brick mansion of Hutchinson and demanded he denounce the Stamp Act in his official letters to London. In typical Loyalist fashion, Hutchinson refused. In response, on the night of August 26, a mob organized by the Sons of Liberty attacked Hutchinson’s mansion. The front door was knocked down with felling axes, the interior of the mansion was thoroughly looted and destroyed including all of the finely crafted woodwork and wainscoting, and the extensive garden was uprooted. In a struggle pitting anti-Hutchinson against pro-Hutchinson supporters, which turned into a violent brawl through the night, the mansion’s cupola was taken down and destroyed. In addition to scores of irreplaceable and costly damages, all of Hutchinson’s fine silver and £900 sterling in cash were looted and carried off by the Sons of Liberty. At the time, it was estimated £2,200 worth of damage was caused by the Patriots on the night of August 26. Hutchinson later received more than £3,000 for reimbursement for the damages from Massachusetts and relocated himself and his family to Castle William in Boston Harbor.

The seminal act and lasting legacy of the Sons of Liberty to the history of the American Revolution was the December 16, 1773 orchestrating of the Boston Tea Party…

The Sons of Liberty and the American Revolution

As tensions in the American colonies intensified on the eve of the Revolution, chapters of the Sons of Liberty were formed all over the Thirteen Colonies, notably throughout New England, Virginia, and the Carolinas – a far cry from the two original chapters formed in Boston and New York City in the summer of 1765. The Sons of Liberty adopted in 1767 a five red and four white vertical striped flag as their organization’s formal standard.

The Sons of Liberty were influential in orchestrating effective resistance movements against British rule in colonial America on the eve of the Revolution, primarily against what they perceived as unfair taxation and financial limitations imposed upon them. Through the use of mob rule, tactics of fear, force, intimidation, and violence such as tar and feathering, and the stockpiling of arms, shot, and gun powder, the Sons of Liberty effectively undermined British rule, paving the way to America’s independence. The Sons of Liberty as an organization disbanded at the close of the American Revolution and as a political entity was replaced early in the Revolution by the more formal and qualified Committees of Safety.

The seminal act and lasting legacy of the Sons of Liberty to the history of the American Revolution was the December 16, 1773 orchestrating of the Boston Tea Party which ultimately led to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War with the “shot heard round the world” on April 19, 1775. The Boston Tea Party, carried out by the Sons of Liberty and led by Samuel Adams, was a catalyst for the start of war and a principal reason why the Revolutionary War began in Massachusetts.