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, September 11, 2015

The Day Liberty Tree Got Its Name

Late on Tuesday, 10 Sept 1765, a ship reached Boston from London carrying three items of great political significance:
There was great rejoicing.

In fact, there was so much rejoicing that Meserve realized he’d made a terrible mistake in accepting the job of stamp agent. Before venturing off the ship, “he sent a Letter to a Friend to be communicated to the Public, signifying that as such an Office would be disagreeable to the People in general he should resign it.” And there was even more rejoicing.

That is, if we can count “a great Number of his Friends and other Gentlemen” who came to Long Wharf to watch Meserve disembark as being a celebration rather than a threat. Being no fool, he “confirmed what he before had wrote, and declared…[he was] determined never to act in that Capacity.” The crowd gave three cheers, “which were repeated at the Head of the Wharf, and again on the Exchange.” With Andrew Oliver, Augustus Johnston, and Jared Ingersoll’s announcements in August, that meant three and a half of New England’s four stamp masters had resigned. (I’m counting Ingersoll as going only halfway.)

According to the Boston News-Letter, “in the Evening many loyal Healths were drunk by Numbers of Gentlemen who met at several public Places for that Purpose.” But the big celebration came the next day,
for the Morning following (Wednesday) was ushered in with the Ringing of all the Bells in Town, and Joy and Gladness appeared in every Countenance; at the South Part of the Town the Trees for which many have so great a Veneration, were decorated with the Ensigns of Loyalty, and the Colours embroidered with several Mottos (which we have not been able to obtain—)

on the Body of the largest Tree was fixed with large deck Nails, that it might last (as a Poet said, like Oaken Bench to Perpetuity) a Copper-Plate with these Words Stamped thereon, in Golden Letters, THE TREE OF LIBERTY, August 14. 1765. A Report of these Decorations collected a great many of the Inhabitants who were at Leisure, where they were saluted with the Firing of a Number of Chambers, and regaled with a Plenty of Liquor.

Towards Evening a Guard of Men armed, belonging to the Militia, were posted near the Trees when the Colours were struck, to prevent any Disorders that might arise among such a Concourse.
Until this date, 250 years ago today, that big tree outside Deacon John Eliot’s in the South End was simply that big tree. For the next ten years it was known as “Liberty Tree” (or “Liberty-Tree,” but not “the Liberty Tree” in period sources) until it was cut down, and even after that Bostonians used “Liberty-Stump” as a landmark.

At the time Lord Adam Gordon happened to be in Boston. He was an army colonel and a Member of Parliament, and even though (or because) he was a Bute and Grenville supporter the town fathers wanted all inhabitants to be on their best behavior in front of him.

TOMORROW: Meanwhile, up in Portsmouth.

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