J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Newspapers on the Flag at Liberty Tree

In my last posting, I promised a look at what Boston’s colonial newspapers said about flags at Liberty Tree. This was my contribution to Monday’s discussion of the “Liberty Tree Flag” at the Old State House Museum (though museum director Rainey Tisdale uncovered one of the crucial quotes below).

Boston Evening-Post, 16 Sept 1765:

At the South Part of the Town the Great Trees for which many have so great Veneration, were decorated with the Ensigns of Loyalty, and the Colours embroidered with several Mottos.
Boston Post-Boy, 19 May 1766:
On the Tree of Liberty waves the British Standard
Boston Evening-Post, 26 May 1766:
The Tree decorated with flags and Streamers, and all round the Town, on the Tops of Houses, were displayed Colours and Pendants
Boston Gazette, 23 Mar 1767:
the venerable Elm of Liberty was variegated with a Multitude of Streamers most beautifully disposed among it’s Branches
Merchant John Rowe’s diary, 14 Aug 1767:
This day the Colours were displayed on the Tree of Liberty & ab[out] Sixty People Sons of Liberty met at One of Clock & Drank the Kings Health.
Customs Commissioners’ report to the Treasury in London, 15 June 1768:
a red flag was hoisted yesterday in the afternoon at Liberty Tree, and continued flying this morning, and that about 10 o’clock this morning a great number of people, supposed to be near 2000, met, and after choosing a moderator adjourned to Faneuil Hall ’till 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Gov. Francis Bernard’s report to the Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State, 16 June 1768:
In August last, just before the Commencement of the present Troubles, they erected a Flag-Staff, which went through the Tree, and a good deal above the Top of the Tree. Upon this they hoist a Flag as a Signal for the Sons of Liberty, as they are called. . . .

Upon this Staff the Flag was flying early in the Morning on Tuesday; at the Time appointed there were assembled they say at least 4,000 Men, many having come out of the Country for that Purpose; some of the principal Gentlemen of the town attended in order to engage the lower People to concur in Measures for Peace and Quiet.
These two confidential reports and some others were later leaked back to Boston by people in London sympathetic to the Massachusetts Whigs. (A leak of similar letters from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and others came through Benjamin Franklin in 1774, derailing both men’s careers.) Boston printers published those documents in a pamphlet and newspapers, convincing many people that the governor and Customs officials were indeed hostile to local liberties and dishonest about their intentions. But I digress.

Boston Post-Boy, 20 June 1768:
Early on Tuesday Morning the Colours were flying on Liberty Tree; and at the Hour appointed, vast Numbers of Inhabitants appeared at and near the Hall; but the Weather being wet and uncomfortable in the Streets, they adjourned to Faneuil-Hall
Boston Evening-Post, 22 Aug 1768:
At the Dawn, the British Flag was displayed on the Tree of Liberty
The Boston Whigs’ ”Journal of the Times” dispatches for newspapers in other towns, 20 Mar 1769:
The British flag was displayed on Liberty Tree, and at noon a number of gentlemen met in the hall under the same, and the greatest order and decorum observed by the company.
John Rowe’s diary again, 1 Aug 1769:
The Flag hoisted on Liberty Tree—the Bells Ringing—Great Joy to the People.
New York Gazette, 7 Aug 1769, probably quoting a newspaper from Boston:
The Union Flagg was displayed from LIBERTY-TREE, where it was kept flying ’till Friday—Colours were also flung out from most of the Vessels in the Harbour—And from the Tops of the Houses in Town.
New York Gazette, 28 Aug 1769, again probably a quoted report:
Monday last being the 14th of August, the Anniversary was celebrated by the Sons of Liberty: In the morning the British flag was displayed on Liberty Tree, under the shade of which at noon the true-born Sons met, and fourteen toasts were drunk
So contemporaneous sources confirm that Whig organizers would fly a flag from the pole near Liberty Tree on celebratory occasions and to summon public meetings. But none of those sources describe a red and white striped flag like the Bostonian Society’s “Liberty Tree Flag.”

Instead, almost every source that describes the flag at or around Liberty Tree says it was a British or Union flag—a symbol of the Empire. The Customs Commissioners wrote of “a red flag” in June 1768, but I wonder if they didn’t mean a “Union Flag with a red field” or red ensign, which other sources confirm was displayed in the colonies before the Revolution. I doubt it was an all-red flag; Boston required such a banner to be flown outside of houses where people had smallpox, so that would hardly be an effective way to summon people.

Flying a symbol of Great Britain from Liberty Tree fits the American Whigs’ political platform through 1775. They weren’t saying, “We’re Americans, and the British are oppressing us”—that message wouldn’t come until the war had started. No, the Whigs were shouting as loud as they could, “We’re British, and a few corrupt politicians in London are oppressing us!” By hoisting the British or Union flag, they proclaimed their loyalty to the king and claimed their rights as British subjects.

COMING UP: What people read about the flag at Liberty Tree in the late 1800s.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Bell,
I've been interested in the Liberty Flag for all normal reasons for years now and have tried to discover information on my own over the years.
I have an original copy of the National Geographic magazine article as well as an electronic copy directly from National Geographic.

I'm very interested in scanned copies of originals when folks discuss items such as newspaper research like you have done. Are the archives you look at actual images of 1760's and 1770's newspapers? Can you help supply images or web links to images?
Any response would be greatly appreciated.

Fred L. Partin
Ocala, Florida

Partin Since 1609
Long Live the Boys From Matoaca, VA

J. L. Bell said...

I use the Early American Newspapers database from Readex, which I can access through the New England Historic and Genealogical Society and the Boston Public Library. You might be able to gain access through a local university as well. That database does offer images (from microfilm) of newspaper items. However, I can’t supply the images or links to them.