Popular writers have raised the same issues. Todd Alan Kreamer’s essay “Sons of Liberty: Patriots or Terrorists?” appeared on EarlyAmerica.com back in the fall of 1996. Ten years later, a student in Pepperell wrote a short essay in Teen Ink concluding that the Sons of Liberty were terrorists and “unacceptable.”
I always want to add that the Sons of Liberty were not murderers. They destroyed property. They inflicted corporal punishment, sometimes brutally. They intimidated and frightened their opponents. But I can’t think of any Crown official, employee, or political supporter in New England who died as a result of political violence until the North Bridge on 19 Apr 1775. (By writing “in New England,” I’m sidestepping the possible example of Royal Navy lieutenant Henry Panton, killed at sea by sailor Michael Corbet while resisting impressment in 1769.) It might have been sheer luck that none of the Sons of Liberty’s victims died, but that’s how it worked out.
Back in the fall of 2001, when terrorism was on everybody’s minds, I took part in discussions on H-Net, a network of email lists for historians, about whether recent events had useful parallels in the Sons of Liberty or the Barbary States. [That was so far back I was still using a Compuserve email address.] H-Net organized a resource page for teachers that mentioned my comments, among others.
I was skeptical of those parallels, partly because people were stretching the evidence or working with incomplete information to construct them, and partly because of that lack of killing. I thought it was more useful to consider how terrorism had changed over time. On 15 Oct 2001 I wrote:
The word “terrorism” was coined in 1795. Originally it referred to Revolutionary France’s Reign of Terror: an angry urban populace and an ideologically fervent government using their control of the streets and the courts to punish many enemies, real and perceived. We can draw a parallel between that behavior and the Sons of Liberty, especially after the Revolutionary War began, though the Americans didn’t use their gallows to the same extent. Certainly historians of the Loyalist community like James Stark drew that parallel.Stark’s The Loyalists of Massachusetts (1910) uses the phrase “reign of terror” three times, suggesting that the Sons of Liberty’s behavior presaged the worst of the French Revolution. Loyalists themselves had used similar language. Gov. Francis Bernard wrote of “the terror which the troops of the faction have occasioned” in Boston (19 July 1768) and “the terror of the mobs” (6 Aug 1768).
Though Bernard called his political opponents “the faction,” he acknowledged that their power came from their numbers (“the troops of the faction,” “the mobs”). Eighteenth-century terrorism usually consisted of violence performed by crowds and supported by the majority of the populace. The Boston Tea Party fits that pattern, but because it was so tightly controlled and targeted, it was actually exceptional. When experts speak about the Sons of Liberty’s terrorism, they usually point to riots, the tarring and feathering of Customs employees like John Malcolm (as shown above), and the destruction of upper-class officials’ houses.
COMING UP: What changed terrorism since the Revolution?
BUT FIRST: Answers to the Deck Calendar Challenge!