Sons of Liberty: History, Members, Facts & Accomplishments

About a decade before “The shot that was heard round the world” (the first military engagements of the American Revolution at the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775), a movement known as the Sons of Liberty had been set up to protect the rights of colonists against the British government’s oppressive tax regime, particularly the Stamp Act of 1765.

With membership stretching across the 13 diminutive American colonies, the Sons of Liberty was a real clandestine political organization that proved to be a thorn in the flesh of the British Parliament and Crown.

In the article below World History Edu explores the history, activities and accomplishments of the Sons of Liberty, a pre-American Revolutionary War underground organization.

Who were the Sons of Liberty?

It was an active and vibrant political organization made up of American colonists from all walks of life who protested what they saw as infringement of the rights and freedom of American colonies by the British government.

The Sons of Liberty did not have proper organized structure. However, they made up for that with a lot of clandestine political moves to thwart the Stamp Act of 1765. Members of the group called on everyone in the 13 American Colonies to rise up and defend their rights, which they believed were being trampled upon by the British Parliament and Crown.

British taxation policies in the American colonies

In a bid to recoup some amount of the money that was spent defending the colonies from the French during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the British government resorted to imposing taxes on the American colonists. One particular tax that caused a huge uproar was the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed things such as pamphlets, almanacs, dice, legal papers, newspapers and among others.

The Stamp Act of 1765 was the most loathed tax of the series of taxes imposed on the American colonies by the British Parliament.

Meaning of the Sons of Liberty

The name Sons of Liberty was derived from a February 1765 given by British Member of Parliament Isaac Barré. In Barré’s speech he described the American colonists that protested against the British government’s taxes-without-representation policy as the “sons of liberty”. Over time the name came to be used for people who resisted British Crown taxation and coercive laws that prevented some colonies from handling their affairs.

Great Britain’s economic woes of the mid-1760s

Following the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Great Britain struggled to balance its books as it had spent a fortune defending its American colonies from the French and her Native American allies. London also had a bit of headache as it pondered how it was going to maintain the over 10,000 soldiers stationed in the colonies. As a result, the British Parliament decided that American colonists bear some of the cost for maintaining those troops. To accomplish this, Great Britain imposed a series of direct taxes on the commercial activities in the 13 diminutive colonies.

One of the first slightly incendiary taxes was the Sugar Act of 1764 which aside from raising revenue for the British government military expenses was designed to reduce sugar and molasses smuggling.

As if tensions weren’t already high enough, the British government followed the Sugar Act with the Stamp Act of 1765. The Stamp Act, a direct tax on all printed materials and stamped paper, infuriated the colonies. This resulted in many of the colonies refusing to comply with those taxes, arguing that their consent was not sought before the decision to roll out the Stamp Act.

Origins of the Sons of Liberty

The 13 horizontal red and white stripes of the Sons of Liberty was also used by American merchant ships during the American Revolutionary war

It is unclear when and where exactly the Sons of Liberty came to being. However, a good number of historians have claimed that the core of the group goes all the way back to the Loyal Nine in Boston, Massachusetts.

With slogans like “No Taxation without Representation”, the Loyal Nine were a group of middle-class American patriots who became vocal in the political arena in the mid-1760s.

The Loyal Nine was a clandestine Boston political organization that had the likes of Boston shoemaker Ebenezer Mackintosh (1737-1816), beer brewer and businessman Thomas Chase, Boston Gazette printer Benjamin Edes, and jeweler Henry Bass (cousin of Samuel Adams). The wealthy members of the Loyal Nine used Mackintosh to get the crowds riled up in order to protest against the Stamp Act.

Meetings

Samuel Adams is usually acclaimed as the founder of the Sons of Liberty

It’s been stated that this precursor organization to the Sons of Liberty began meeting at a place near the Boston Gazette office.

The nine original members of the Loyal Nine were Thomas Chase, Steven Cleverly, Henry Bass, Thomas Crafts, Joseph Filed, John Avery, John Smith, Benjamin Edes, and George Trott.

On some occasions, American Patriots like John Adams (later 2nd President of the United States), Benjamin Church, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, Thomas Young, and John Hancock participated in their meetings.

The Liberty Tree – the rallying point of the Sons of Liberty

Liberty Tree – The Colonists Under Liberty Tree, Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, 1865.

The Loyal Nine and later the Sons of Liberty had their first protest in August 1765 under a large elm tree in Hanover Square. The tree came to be known as the Liberty Tree. In addition to hosting many protests, the Liberty Tree was a place where speeches (mainly inspired by colonial tea merchants) were made to get more Bostonians to join the cause of defending the rights of American colonists. It was also place where the protesters against the Stamp Act hanged effigies of Stamp officials and other British government officials.

Operations and activities

Led by Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty were at the forefront in opposing the Stamp Act of 1765. They deployed both violent and nonviolent tactics, the latter coming after legislative resolutions and public demonstrations fell on deaf ears.

The Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty was established around the summer of 1765. And soon, the group’s tentacles had spread to other colonies. The leaders of the of Sons of Liberty worked extremely hard to coordinate their activities, hoping to provide a more united front against Britain’s unsavory tax policies. For example, the chapters in New York and Connecticut began coordinating their activities in the winter of 1765.

The Sons of Liberty was therefore formed in the summer of 1765 to protest against the Stamp Act of 1765. In less than half a year into its formation, the Sons of Liberty had spread to virtually all the 13 American colonies. | Image: Proof sheet of one-penny stamps submitted for approval to Commissioners of Stamps by engraver, May 10, 1765

Tarring and feathering

Being one of the most-hard hit areas in terms of the Stamp Act, Boston’s Sons of Liberty were perhaps the most active. Often times Bostonians resorted to tar and feathering of British government officials and tax collectors. In the streets of Boston, it was not uncommon for the Sons of Liberty to burn the effigies of stamp distributors after they had tarred and feathered them.  Aside from the obvious humiliation, many of those violent acts were done to intimidate the stamp officials into resigning.

The Sons of Liberty did not limit tar and feathering to government officials; they also targeted loyalists to the British Crown. This included established businessmen and traders who benefited the most from maintaining the status quo.

The Liberty Tree hosted many of the protests organized by the Sons of Liberty | Image: The Sons of Liberty tarring and feathering John Malcolm under the Liberty Tree

The raid on Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s house

Another very defining moment in the history of the Sons of Liberty came when they burned down the residence of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. The raid, which occurred on August 26, 1756, was used by some radical leaders of the Sons of Liberty  leader to get the lower classes Bostonians to back them.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773

Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party took place on December 16, 1773 | Source: W.D. Cooper. Boston Tea Party in The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789. Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Compared to the protests against the Stamp Act in 1765, the Tea Act of May 10, 1773 was met with an even greater response from the Sons of Liberty. By 1773, the organization had gotten a lot more effective; they were therefore able to mobilize themselves properly and oppose the Tea Act. The colonists again trumpeted their motto: “no taxation without representation”.

Under the leadership of Paul Revere, a group of about 100 to 120 men disguised themselves as American Indians (mainly Mohawk Indians) and went aboard three vessels which carried tea. The men, who came from all walks of life, then dumped all the tea into the Boston Harbor. In all, about 342 chests of tea (that belonged to the British East India Company) were purposely destroyed. To put into perspective, the cargo that was destroyed on that day weighed about 92,000 pounds. The value of the tea in today’s money is around $1.6 million.

Did you knowIt was not until half a century later that the 1773 destruction of tea at the Boston harbor became known as the Boston Tea Party?

The British response to the Destruction of Tea in 1773

The news of Bostonians destroying tea sent shock waves throughout Britain. Therefore, the British government tasked the Royal Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson to quickly crack the whip on the protesters. Governor Hutchinson’s successor, General Thomas Gage, was given broad powers after the colonial charter of Massachusetts got rewritten. Britain also responded by introducing the Intolerable Acts in 1774 to punish Boston for the tea destroyed. The British authorities also closed the Boston port.

With every passing day, the Massachusetts colony became overwhelmed by intensified stringent policies (i.e. the Coercive Acts) introduced by London. More British troops (under the command of General Thomas Gage) were dispatched to Boston to prevent the situation from escalating. All of those measures were aimed at not only teaching Bostonians a lesson but also restoring the British Crown’s authority in Boston.

Boston Tea Party

Governor Thomas Hutchinson was the British official tasked to rein in on the agitations of Bostonians following the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773 | Portrait by Edward Truman, 1741

How the Sons of Liberty and other colonists responded to the Intolerable Acts

In response to Britain’s increased grip on the North American colonies, the Sons of Liberties and other political active groups called supported the establishment of a continental congress. The First Continental Congress met in the autumn of 1774 and threw their weight behind the decision to boycott British goods. Britain obviously did not take too kindly to those moves by the American colonies.

Colonists outside Boston united in solidarity with Boston, with many leading Sons of Liberty members calling for the boycott of not just British goods but businesses. The rebellious actions of the Sons of Liberty on that faithful day, December 16, 1773, escalated into the American Revolutionary War two years later.

Sons of Liberty: Fast Facts

Leading members of the Sons of Liberty | Image: (L-R): 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

Notable members: Samuel Adams, Benjamin Church, Isaac Sears, Hercules Mulligan, Benedict Arnold, Samuel Chase, Patrick Henry, Charles Thomson, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Edes, John Hancock, James Otis, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren,

Founded in: 1765

Dissolved: 1776

Inspired by: the Stamp Act of 1765

Presence: Massachusetts Bay, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island

Catchphrase: “No taxation without representation”

Ideals: Liberalism, Republicanism

Greatest Accomplishments: Prevented the implementation of the Stamp Act; Played active role in the political arena in the years leading to American Revolutionary War

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