The Sons of Liberty were various groups of colonists who organized resistance to Great Britain between 1765 and 1775. Operating in all the 13 colonies, these groups of intellectuals, small merchants, and artisans formed the nucleus of resistance movements and were instrumental in organizing and coordinating protests. They served as an important link between elite colonial politicians and lower-class mobs by transforming intellectual arguments into visible demonstrations of discontent. Although these groups sometimes condoned and even encouraged violence, they often tried to moderate more explosive mobs and channel popular enthusiasm into organized political events. Though popular mythology portrays the Sons of Liberty as a monolithic and highly organized American underground resistance movement, these groups were much more autonomous and dependent upon the local circumstances for their origins, goals, and composition while creating connections with like-minded groups across the colonies.
"Sons of Liberty" was a term with significance for eighteenth-century Americans, who viewed English liberties as their birthright as British subjects. It was often used in the 1750s and 1760s to denote any inheritor of British liberties and then generally any resistor to oppressive British policies. A speech against the Stamp Act delivered by Col. Isaac Barré, a member of Parliament sympathetic to the American cause, highlighted this idea and galvanized a common sentiment into a collective identity. Beginning with the resistance to the Stamp Act of 1765, the term came to denote organized groups opposed to British policy. The Stamp Act was a radical departure from previous British taxation and colonial administration efforts that had left the colonists to govern themselves. Opponents from New Hampshire to South Carolina formed themselves into resistance groups in at least 15 localities. One major center was New York, where quick organization united groups from Long Island to Albany between January and April 1766 and linked them to places such as Connecticut and Boston and beyond through a system of correspondence. Resistance to the Stamp Act spawned the first significant and organized resistance to British policies and created intertwined webs of support and communication among colonial groups.
In their various forms, the Sons of Liberty arose from dissatisfaction with the British Empire, not just over taxation but also over the status of what contemporaries would describe as "middling men" such as artisans. Several groups included members of the elite, such as the wealthy Boston merchant John Hancock and the prominent physician Dr. Joseph Warren, but they were only one part of the diversity of groups included in the movement, which featured members of the middle and upper classes. Artisans, small merchants, and intellectuals made up the core of the Sons of Liberty movement and formed these groups not only as a means of protest against England but also as a way to secure a political voice for themselves within the colonial system. People like Paul Revere, a prosperous Boston silversmith, and Alexander McDougall, a small merchant from New York, as well as intellectuals and middle-level colonial officials like Samuel Adams, occupied a middle place on the spectrum of colonial society. Despite their prosperity or intellectual and political acumen, they were not part of the wealthy and connected political elites like the Franklins and Hutchinsons, nor were they part of the lower-class mob so often employed by the Sons of Liberty. They served as a bridge between two worlds, able to interact with the upper echelons of society and walk the halls of power, but also able to connect with the lower classes and translate lofty political rhetoric into actionable ideas. Complicated arguments about taxation policy or the unconstitutionality of British trade enforcement measures could be turned into visible examples of colonial resistance through events such as the Boston Tea Party.
These people were used to leadership roles. In Connecticut, the Sons were led by men like Israel Putnam and John Durkee, respectively a colonel and captain in the colonial militia. Samuel Adams held a number of civic offices in Massachusetts and was a skilled political operative. Paul Revere, as the manager of a highly successful silversmith shop with a penchant for self-improvement and social climbing, could move between artisan and intellectual circles with relative ease. It was Revere whose name appeared on the greatest number of membership lists for the various resistance groups in Boston and who often served as a link between many of the different groups. These men were not the most influential politicians or the wealthiest elites, but they had practical experience in organizing. Elites did participate in the Sons of Liberty, especially in the South, where resistance was led by the planter classes, but widespread participation was encouraged, to demonstrate broad discontent with British policies. Through carefully staged events and mass meetings, the Sons of Liberty could receive the widest support while retaining control of their message. The combination of massive numbers and a skilled and dedicated leadership would prove highly effective.
As news of the proposed Stamp Act circulated through the colonies in autumn 1764, concerned colonists gathered to discuss their options and demonstrate their opposition. The tax on nearly all printed materials was a novelty in America, requiring that specially stamped paper from England be distributed by royal officials. The Sons of Liberty took the lead in organizing resistance. The large number of related groups and the diffusion of leadership meant that resistance efforts were widespread and any crackdowns on leaders would be ineffectual. For example, the Loyal Nine, whose members were the nucleus of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, was supplemented by at least six other groups in that city by 1775 with different and sometimes overlapping membership. Sons of Liberty groups organized their campaigns along two fronts: political resistance in the form of petitions and other legal actions to show their displeasure, and violent intimidation of Crown officials and supporters. The former coincided with attempts to organize across the 13 colonies. The Stamp Act Congress of 1766 epitomized these legal protests by gathering colonial representatives to debate a course of collective action. It was the coordination efforts of individual groups that spawned the meeting. This significant step in colonial unity helped create a shared political consciousness through collective action and the call for boycotts of British goods. Colonists also continued to conduct routine business without stamped documents in order to erode the legitimacy of the act, often at the urging of local leaders of the Sons of Liberty.
The latter form of protest, violent intimidation and vandalism, was more dependent upon circumstance and the convictions of local officials. Threats of violence and intimidation often accompanied more formal legal protests. Many regions tried to prevent the landing of stamped paper or strongly encouraged stamp distributors to resign. In Georgia, by contrast, the opposition movement was so internally divided as to pose little threat to the royal establishment. In many locations, large meetings under liberty trees or around liberty poles served as potent visual aids that underscored the popularity of the anti-Stamp Act movement. Sons of Liberty groups organized these mass events as political theater to rouse support among the populace as highly visible demonstrations of popular sentiment. Many events were peaceful and were simply large gatherings with speeches, demonstrations, and the occasional effigy burning. Occasionally, though, such gatherings turned into mobs, as happened in Newport, where the homes of two royal officials were destroyed. Other stamp distributors faced the threat of violent coercion if they did not resign their posts or refuse to distribute stamps. Mobs, inflamed by the rhetoric of mass meetings and their own pent-up frustrations, could easily get out of hand during and after rallies. Among those Crown officials who ran afoul of the resistance movement was Thomas Hutchinson, a member of New England's elite and a high-ranking colonial official, and his brother-in-law Andrew Oliver, who was appointed a stamp distributor. A protest on August 14, 1765, in which effigies of Oliver appeared sparked further riots later in the month when a mob ransacked the homes of both Oliver and Hutchinson. Even the press in New England began to suggest that violent coercion was acceptable if officials did not listen to popular demands. Though initially limited, the underlying violent streak of protestors would become more common as the rift between Britain and America grew.
Throughout the Stamp Act crisis, the Sons of Liberty were careful to make clear their views on revolution. Resistance to the Stamp Act was merely an effort to uphold traditional English constitutional values (representation and no taxation without such representation) and the status quo of the colonies within the imperial framework. Government functions unrelated to the Stamp Act were supposed to be undisturbed. Colonial resistance to Britain remained limited to specific policies and had not evolved into a rebellion against the British Empire itself. With the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, tensions eased, albeit temporarily.
The passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767 placed new taxes on imported items like glass, paper, and tea, as well as tightened enforcement measures. Searches and seizures were made easier for royal officials, and colonists faced trials in Admiralty courts without sympathetic colonial juries. Colonists again organized to protest the measures, and the Sons of Liberty would be instrumental in coordinating these efforts. This second period of resistance also witnessed an evolution of tactics and a rise in the use of force and violent political intimidation on the part of the colonists. Resistance was taking on a more radical form.
Sons of Liberty took direct and tacit control of the continued resistance movement. Boycotts and mass meetings allowed the colonists to demonstrate their support in a public forum, and boycotts had been a successful form of protest against the Stamp Act. These public demonstrations had the added benefit of allowing resistance organizers to see who was a staunchally, who was a moderate, and who was siding with the British. To enforce the protest measures and ensure greater compliance, parts of the resistance movement began resorting to violent coercive measures designed to silence opposition. Though most leading members of the Sons of Liberty shied away from outright violence, the political atmosphere they created encouraged an escalation of both rhetoric and action against British policy and control. Tarring and feathering, in which the unfortunate victim was stripped, coated in hot tar and feathers, and often paraded about on a fence rail, became a popular form of retributive action, so much so that committees for tarring and feathering appeared in some locales to coordinate the activity. Other measures like riding fence rails, committing minor vandalism, forcing customs officers to drink boiling hot tea, and assaulting Loyalists in the streets served as constant motivators to reluctant colonists to join with the radical cause. Popular British cartoons depicted these criminal actions as the work of street thugs and the dregs of society, which they largely were. Leaders of the resistance were careful to distance themselves from these events and were more than happy to let the dirty work be done by street thugs, lower-class workers, and less-respectable elements of society.
Such threats to civic order had the effect of escalating tensions between the colonists and the government of the Crown, often with explosive and far-reaching consequences. For example, unrest fomented by supporters of John Hancock during his trial on smuggling charges in 1768 created such a disturbance in Boston that the British government sent troops to the city to restore order. The soldiers were unwelcome and made to feel so. It was common for the locals to throw snowballs or rocks at the sentries or small groups of soldiers, or simply to trade insults with them. One such incident in March 1770 outside the Customs House led to serious bloodshed. A mob surrounded a British sentry and began threatening him. Reinforcements led by Captain Preston arrived, but the mob kept up its barrage. Confusion resulted in the accidental discharge of weapons, and several colonists were killed and wounded. The American resistance used the so-called Boston Massacre as a propaganda coup, but the event was incited by the mob, a fact John Adams relied upon during his successful defense of the troops at their murder trial. In another incident, a group of colonists organized by the Sons of Liberty in Rhode Island captured a British customs ship, the Gaspée, looted the vessel, and then burned it to prevent its anti-smuggling work. These activities, if not expressly organized by the Sons of Liberty, grew out of the volatile political climate created by their resistance efforts. Pent-up feelings of resentment over disfranchisement in the colonial system, British economic policies, and a general economic downturn helped fuel the growing violence beyond the direct control of the Sons of Liberty. By 1772, violent unrest had reached dangerous levels, and it took concerted efforts by British authorities and moderate colonial leaders to calm the situation. These efforts were aided by the partial repeal of the Townshend Acts in 1770, though the tax on tea remained to assert Parliament's authority.
This British cartoon from 1774 shows two American men forcing a tarred and feathered customs officer with a noose around his neck to drink from a large teapot. The large bow on the hat of the man on the right suggests his membership in the Sons of Liberty. His companion's identification with the 1745 Jacobite rising in Scotland (the "45" on his hat) was meant to evoke fear of disorder and revolution. Most leading members of the Sons of Liberty did not themselves participate in outright violence; however, they were more than willing to foment anger among lower-class people and to use this anger to encourage retributive action that would push the resistance movement forward. (Library of Congress)
The tax on tea, indeed, became a test case in Parliament's ability to tax the colonists. The British East India Company had a theoretical monopoly on tea sales to the colonies, but smuggled tea was usually cheaper. In 1773, in an effort to reduce the company's surplus of tea and win colonial acceptance of taxation, Parliament artificially lowered the price of East India Company tea to make it cheaper than smuggled tea, tax included. When colonists realized the ramifications of accepting taxed tea upon American shores, the Sons of Liberty organized efforts to prevent its delivery. In ports like New York, tea ships were either turned away or prevented from landing their cargo. Boston, where Thomas Hutchinson was serving as the royal governor, faced a more difficult problem. His standoff with the colonial resistance leaders increased his determination to land the tea sitting on ships in the harbor. Before that could happen, however, a large group of Sons of Liberty, crudely disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded the ships and threw the tea into the harbor. In an effort to demonstrate that their displeasure was only with the Tea Act, and to maintain an aura of legitimate protest, the Sons of Liberty went so far as to replace a number of broken locks and to punish a raider caught stealing tea by parading him naked through the streets. As an act of political theater, it was a crowning achievement for the Boston Sons of Liberty, demonstrating their daring and skill at organizing as well as their ability to carry out peaceful protest. The British government, however, was not amused.
In the aftermath of the Tea Party, resistance turned from protest to preparations for war. British reactions to the tea dumping were swift and severe: military government replaced civilian control in Massachusetts, the port was closed, and a large garrison set up permanent residence. The "Intolerable Acts," as they were known in America, closed the port of Boston and replaced civilian government with military rule, among other steps. This further strained relations between Britain and the colonies. The Sons of Liberty had already branched into different organizations, but with the army patrolling the streets of Boston, and many of its leaders and a significant portion of the population taking refuge outside the city, visible radical activity was somewhat limited. With tensions high, focus shifted toward military preparations. Former Sons of Liberty began organizing Committees of Correspondence and Committees of Safety that took the lessons of earlier resistance and applied them to military preparations. Networks of communication, both for intelligence gathering and as warning systems of British machinations, emerged from the old Sons of Liberty groups. Militia units began training, and local groups began stockpiling munitions in the event of hostilities. Of these, it was the strong communications networks that would prove to be crucial between 1774 and the outbreak of war in April 1775. Paul Revere, a prominent figure in resistance groups during the 1760s, continued his work by coordinating an intelligence network in Boston to monitor the British and by personally assuming the role of courier to disseminate information throughout Massachusetts and New England. Previously arranged networks of couriers meant that news of the British move to seize munitions at Concord in April 1775 arrived in New Hampshire and Rhode Island within one day of the event. The response of thousands of New England militia descending on Boston was the military equivalent of mass protests organized in the 1760s and testified to the ability of leaders to build upon their experience organizing the Sons of Liberty.
The growing American resistance movement provided common Americans with diverse avenues by which to enter the political discourse. Their participation in riots and demonstrations as well as petition drives and boycott movements created a shared political identity among the various colonial social classes and promoted a more broadly democratic and participatory society. The Sons of Liberty, in all their incarnations, were yet another forum for political activism on the part of people heretofore given limited voice in the public discourse. The sometimes-violent actions taken between 1765 and 1775, however, were as much expressions of mob anger as carefully staged political theater that unified radicals and disheartened Loyalists. In many colonies, it was the Sons of Liberty who organized latent frustration into political action. Coordinating the political rhetoric of the colonial elites with the threat of violence and intimidation of opponents gave the American resistance movement tremendous political power. Sons of Liberty created new forms of political action and unity, linking highbrow politics with lowbrow demonstrations that pushed America closer toward revolution. These groups formed the basis of the Committees of Correspondence and Committees of Safety that would take charge of more militant resistance on the eve of the Revolution using the lessons learned about organization and communication. The Sons of Liberty laid the organizational foundations of the American resistance movement and helped to transform political organizing and participation on the continent.
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- Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. .
- Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. .
- From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. .
- The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. .
- The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. .
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