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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Monday, December 08, 2014

The Sons of Liberty Medal

In 1874 James Kimball wrote in the Essex Institute Historical Collections:
The following is from a private manuscript in my possession, written by Col. John Russell in 1850, whose father was one of the “Sons,” and an active participator during those stirring scenes (with Paul Revere, [Thomas] Melville, [Samuel] Sprague, etc.), a school master living during the war on Temple street, Boston.

Col. Russell says, “The Sons of Liberty consisted of an association of spirited men, who were determined to resist the oppressive edicts of the British Ministry, and to sustain and support each other in their efforts to rescue the town and country from the thraldom of tyrannic power. On public occasions each member wore suspended from his neck a medal, on one side of which was the figure of a stalwart arm, grasping in its hand a pole surmounted with a Cap of Liberty, and surrounded by the words, ‘Sons of Liberty.’ On the reverse was the emblem of the Liberty Tree. One of these medals I once had in my possession, with the initials of my father’s name, W. R., engraved thereon, but it was many years ago irrecoverably lost.”
William Russell (1748-1784) was indeed on the first published list of Tea Party members in 1835. During the war he served in Col. Thomas Crafts’s state artillery regiment and on Capt. John Manley’s ship Jason, becoming a prisoner of war twice and dying of a disease contracted in captivity. He was also Kimball’s great-grandfather.

Francis S. Drake repeated Kimball’s statement (without credit) in Tea Leaves (1884). Elbridge Goss quoted it with credit in his 1891 biography of Revere. In the juvenile biography Paul Revere: The Torch Bearer of the Revolution (1913), Belle Moses declared that Revere himself had made those medals. The Sons of Liberty medal also makes an appearance in Esther Forbes’s novel Johnny Tremain, where it serves as a secret signal among members of the society.

G. Gedney Godwin has produced its own version of the medal, shown above. The firm’s webpage credits Revere with the original design and “Bell Moses” for preserving the description.

Yet the medal John Russell described in 1850 was never found again. Nor has any other family produced or written about such a medal, despite how every other member of the Boston Sons of Liberty was supposed to own one. And there’s no contemporaneous mention of such medals, despite how those men were supposed to wear theirs on “public occasions.”

So I’m not really convinced that the Sons of Liberty actually had these medals. Or any medals at all.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

The arm has a nineteenth-century vibe to me--it looks awfully like that of the "Arm & Hammer" logo!

J. L. Bell said...

The seller admits that the medal design we see is simply its recreation of the description passed along by one author after another.

D McClellan said...

Loved "Johnny Tremain" and reread it many times in fifth and sixth grades -- actually wished I could go back in time and be him. Agree with your final comment: doubting that the SOL actually had the medals in their possession at any time.

Anonymous said...

Of course, since Revere was skilled as a silversmith, such medals could've existed. As for the Arm & Hammer logo look, one only has to turn to the Bedford Minuteman Company flag to see a similar arm, only it is covered in armor and holding a small sword.

I don't disagree that these men probably didn't wear a medal during the revolution, I wouldn't dismiss that a commemorative medal might have been cast after the war.

J. L. Bell said...

But what evidence is there for any such Sons of Liberty medals, cast before, during, or after the war; by Revere or anyone else; with any design? The Russell family is the only one that claimed to have ever had such a medal, and scores of other Boston families had ancestors who were active Sons of Liberty.

As for the arm grasping a pole with a Liberty Cap on top, that iconography appeared in the period like this, not like the Bedford Flag arm grasping a sword or the Arm & Hammer arm.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve found a close variant on the passage quoted in this posting in the 2 Mar 1850 Boston Evening Transcript, in a letter signed “Native Bostonian” and almost certainly written by John Russell.