The Radicals Who Made a Revolution

List of the Sons of liberty
An Alphabetical List of the Sons of Liberty who dined at Liberty Tree, Dorchester, 1769, Massachusetts Historical Society

The Radicals Who Made a Revolution

A few years back, somewhere near the beginning of the lingering housing crisis, I ran across an article talking about parallels between our own present financial woes and those of the American colonists struggling with the collapse of their economy after the high-flying days of the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763. Benjamin Franklin, just returned after considerable time as envoy to London, lamented that rents and land values had “trebled in the past six years,” due to the British practice of quartering troops and supplies in private buildings and on lands for which no rent or price seemed too high. When the troops were sent home, however, the artificial juggernaut of prosperity fell apart. Rented properties were suddenly vacant; overvalued lands and homes were seized. Trouble that sounds familiar to all of us today soon began. Reading of all this provided the first tug of personal connection with events that I knew about vaguely but had never felt, a moment of the sort in which all my histories have been born.

As I continued to pull on that thread of history’s sleeve, and as I came to realize that there had never been a book about the secret, radical group of men in the colonies who were responsible for leading us from those first stirrings of discontent into a revolution a decade later, I became hooked. We might have heard bits and pieces of the story, but the entire saga, I saw, had never been told from beginning through middle to end. This has always been my interest in writing history: to tell a fascinating, little-known story “behind the story.”

Patrick Henry before the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1765, Library of Congress
Patrick Henry before the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1765, Library of Congress

As I would learn, the Sons of Liberty in the American colonies were covert associations of like-minded colonists fed up with the onerous taxes levied upon already hard-pressed colonists by the British Government, itself suffering through recession and desperate to pay off its debts in the aftermath of the French and Indian War. These “cells” of Sons began to spring up independently of one another following the imposition of the Stamp Act by the British in 1765. There were eventually chapters of the Sons of Liberty in most of the American colonies, though at first the groups in New York, Boston, Connecticut and South Carolina were the most forceful and daring.

These Sons were galvanized in their opposition to the taxes and other indignities (colonists being forced to house and feed British troops, suffering under inept officials sent over by Parliament), given that the economy was as bad in the colonies as in the mother country. But even more frustrating was the fact that colonists felt they had no say in their own governance—thus the eventual battle cry: “no taxation without representation.”

From very early on the Sons were willing to use violence as a means of forcing the British to listen—polite petitioning and lobbying was generally met with amused indifference and disdain by British politicians. Reading of the torching of more than one British official’s home or public building soon had me thinking back to the protests of the Civil Rights Era and the anti-war movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Nothing much changed until it became clear that ignoring the problems would drive desperate people to violence.

John Hancock, oil on canvas, 1765, Massachusetts Historical Society
John Hancock, oil on canvas, 1765, Massachusetts Historical Society

The leaders of the various cells of Sons tended to be colonial merchants, such as John Hancock, whose businesses suffered greatly from various taxes and trade strictures. Most of the rank and file, however, were city-dwelling working men—longshoremen and laborers–whose very survival depended upon a functioning economy. Most of the truly wealthy in the colonies were British citizens who had been given vast holdings in the colonies for previous service to the Crown. To the Loyalist wealthy, the Sons were traitors, pure and simple.

News of the escalating troubles led by various Sons groups, from the Stamp Act riots of 1766, through the Boston Massacre of 1770, to the legendary Tea Party of 1773 was spread by the burgeoning popular press in the colonies. All about the colonies, accounts of Patrick Henry’s stirring orations before the Virginia House of Burgesses, where then-moderates such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson watched in amazement, filled the pages of what had previously been little more than advertising circulars. Such accounts would eventually lead to the establishment of news media as we understand the term today.

His Excellency Samuel Adams
His Excellency Samuel Adams, 19th Century, Massachusetts Historical Society

In regard to the dissemination of news of the various Sons’ activities and their ever-more-articulate defense of the principles of liberty, no individual was more important than Boston-based patriot Samuel Adams, cousin of the far more conservative John Adams, who would go on to become our second President. Samuel Adams was called by his contemporaries “the living embodiment of the concept of freedom” and is sometimes cited as the true “father to his country.” While Washington led the colonial armies to victory, the truth is that there might not have been a fight to begin with had it not been for the work of Sam Adams.

As to the question of how instrumental the Sons of Liberty were in guiding the colonies to armed insurrection, the eventual dissolution of the British Empire suggests that the colonies would eventually have separated from the mother ship of Great Britain, but who knows when that divorce would have taken place and in what form? What we can be certain of is what history shows us. Over a period of roughly 10 years, from the Albany Riots of early 1766 until the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Sons of Liberty, individually and collectively, were able to gradually galvanize their often apathetic, often disdainful, often fearful fellow citizens into a willingness to take up arms against the most powerful nation on earth. To appreciate the magnitude of what this movement achieved, try to imagine that Eldridge Cleaver and Abbie Hoffman and Stokely Carmichael and their peers had actually been successful in forming an armed insurrection against the U.S. government in the 1960’s and, furthermore, emerged victorious. Timothy Leary as President, Huey Newton as Secretary of Defense, etc. Impossible, right? Well, what the Sons of Liberty caused to happen is just that incredible.

Patrick Henry, oil on canvas, 1891, U.S. Senate Collection
Patrick Henry, oil on canvas, 1891, U.S. Senate Collection

In writing my account, I thought it important to note just how unlikely was the mounting of a successful revolution that we tend to take for granted from this end of history’s telescope. But just as important to me was the attempt to portray the leaders of the Sons as living, breathing individuals often despised by their fellow citizens and willing to lay down their lives in order to bring about change—Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and others less well known, are not just names on an historical register or simply to be lauded in schoolboy histories full of glory and braggadocio. When I marched in anti-war demonstrations in the 1960’s, I had very little sense that I was in danger. These men, on the other hand, knew from the beginning that they could be tried and executed for treason.

This leads me to a final observation about the essential nature of the Sons of Liberty and their relevance to contemporary times. For one thing, a close look at the success of the Sons of Liberty reminds us that effective organization and political change is a grassroots process, fed from the bottom up, not from the top down. And for another, contemporary conservative groups that like to present themselves as modern-day sons of liberty—direct philosophical descendants of the Partiers who tossed that British tea into Boston Harbor—might want to keep in mind that there is one major distinction. The original Sons of Liberty came into being because they had no government and were fighting to form one. Contemporary sons and tea party members have a government and a means of getting their representatives elected to that government, they just don’t seem happy about it much of the time.

Even Samuel Adams, the most obdurate of all the original Sons, was asked during the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790’s if he wasn’t a staunch supporter of these Western Pennsylvania farmers who were shooting at federal revenue agents rather than pay the taxes the government had voted to levy on their soon-to-be-distilled corn. Adams seemed to find the question insulting. Revolt against a king and parliament bent on excluding colonists from government was necessary, he said. But any citizen of a democratic government who took up arms against that government ought, in his opinion, to be hanged.