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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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Whom Do We Mean by “Sons of Liberty”?

One for the perennial questions about America’s Revolution is how we should understand the “Sons of Liberty,” as American activists called themselves. With a television show of that name on the way, I suspect the question will come up even more.

In recent weeks Rebecca Brooks’s History of Massachusetts blog and Bob Ruppert’s article for the Journal of the American Revolution have tackled that question, rounding up the sources on the Sons of Liberty in Boston.

One one side of the spectrum of possible answers is the one implied by the “Sons of Liberty medal” I discussed yesterday: it was such a formalized group that it gave each member a medal engraved with his initials to wear on public occasions and (at least according to Johnny Tremain) flash as a sign of membership. That idea holds appeal for spy fiction writers, but the evidence for it is very thin.

On the other side is the idea that “Sons of Liberty” was a generic label for any men in the colonies who opposed the Crown’s new revenue measures and enforcement between the Stamp Act and the outbreak of war. That suggests it was no more of a formal group than, say, “all true Americans.”

Ben Carp’s article on the term for Colonial Williamsburg, which I missed when it was published on the web three years ago, offers some valuable information on how the phrase resonated in the Georgian British Empire:
The term “sons of liberty” or “sons of freedom” was a generic term of national pride in the eighteenth century, usable on both sides of the Atlantic for anyone who felt that English, and later British, liberty was his birthright. An English writer in 1753 knew that his readers, as “sons of liberty,” would recoil at tales of despotism in India and elsewhere. An Irish Protestant might rally his compatriots with the phrase. Essentially, a British son of liberty was the same thing as a patriot, or a “friend of his country.” In the 1760s, when Americans took pride in their identity as British subjects, they thought of empire and liberty as one and the same.

But in 1765, the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies changed, and so did the meaning behind the phrase “Sons of Liberty.” The phrase caught fire in America when Colonel Isaac Barré spoke against the Stamp Bill introduced in Parliament in February 1765.
A group of Whigs in Albany led by Dr. Thomas Young adopted the name “Sons of Liberty” when they wrote themselves a “constitution,” now known only through a photostat copy.

Most other groups didn’t that far, and local newspapers used the term in a more general way, as in “a great Number of Gentlemen, Sons of Liberty” (New York Mercury, 13 Jan 1766), or “some young gentlemen, Sons of Liberty” (Newport Mercury, 14 Apr 1766). There were also references to “Daughters of Liberty” and “Friends of Liberty,” all united in the same cause.

And in Boston? On 15 Jan 1766, John Adams wrote in his diary that he “Spent the Evening with the Sons of Liberty, at their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty.” He named nine men who were there, without suggesting they were the only members of the group, and compared them to the sort of gentlemen’s club he was used to. A month later, one of those men, Thomas Crafts, Jr., told Adams that “the Sons of Liberty Desired your Company at Boston Next Wensday.”

So in early 1766 the term “Sons of Liberty” seems to have meant a particular group in Boston. Yet as of the end of the previous year that same group was calling itself “the Loyall Nine” while issuing the invitation shown above to “all True-born Sons of Liberty”—which implies they saw themselves as just part of a larger movement. And within a couple of years men not part of the Loyall Nine, such as Dr. Young from Albany, were taking the lead in organizing political actions in Boston.

By the anniversary of the first Stamp Act protests in 1769, over three hundred “Sons of Liberty” dined at Lemuel Robinson’s Liberty Tree tavern in Dorchester. Those men included some who became Loyalists as war arrived. That’s obviously too large and diverse a group to be secretly organizing radical political actions as the Loyall Nine had done back in 1765.

On the other hand, those political actions could bring out thousands of people, as at the funerals of early 1770 or the tea meetings of 1773. So there were probably many more than three hundred men in Boston who considered themselves “Sons of Liberty.” (Indeed, by making their celebration a sit-down dinner out in Dorchester, whoever organized that banquet made sure it was just for gentlemen.)

I think it’s best to think of the label “Sons of Liberty” as similar to “Tea Party,” “Women’s Lib,” or other mass movements from recent decades. There are small formal groups that use “Tea Party” in their names, but many people support the movement or attend events without joining such groups. No single organization decided everything said and done in the cause of “Women’s Liberation.” And those movements developed recognizable iconography, but they didn’t have membership badges.


Michael Hattem said...

Indeed!! Excellent post. I think your last paragraph nails the way I've always thought about it. Neither a small group of movement leaders nor the entirety of a defined group led by those men. Rather, it was more a term that signaled a political position and served as an umbrella term for the array of individuals who took that position. In some sense, it was much like "Whig" or "Tory" were used in the colonies, in that it described a discrete political position on a specific issue rather than describing a coherently defined ideology or, even, party platform. In many ways the use of this kind of terminology being applied on an issue-by-issue basis is reflective of the non-ideological factional fluidity of political culture in the colonies (particularly in the Middle Colonies and, also, New England).

Todd Andrlik said...

Good stuff, John. Both sides are evident in the newspapers. The Georgia Gazette of October 24, 1765, published the following: "At a meeting of the Sons of Liberty, on Monday night last, at Machenry's tavern..."

The Supplement to the Boston News-Letter, 27 Jan 1766, includes an extract of a letter from Charleston, South Carolina, dated 2 Dec 1765: "At present every thing is very quiet here; our Liberty Boys being content to keep out the Stamps..."

Then, in the 20 March 1766 Pennsylvania Gazette is a passage under an "Annapolis, March 6" date line: "On Monday, the 24th of February, a considerable Number of the principal Gentlemen of Baltimore County, met at the Market-House in Baltimore-Town, formed themselves into a Society for the Maintenance of Order and Protection of American LIBERTY, by the Name of SONS OF LIBERTY, and resolved to meet at Annapolis, on Friday last, to oblige the several Officers there, to open their respective Offices, and proceed in Business, as usual, without stamped Paper: And that the Society and Application might be still the more respectable, the SONS OF LIBERTY in Baltimore, gave the most speedy Notice to Gentlemen of the neighboring Counties, to form themselves into the like Societies, and co-operate with them in this so laudable Work. Saturday last, a much greater Number of the SONS OF LIBERTY than could be expected from the Shortness of the Notice, met, by Adjournment, at the Court House in Annapolis..."