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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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Lanterns on Liberty Tree

On the night of Monday, 19 May 1766, with fireworks going off all over Boston Common to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act, Whigs hung forty-five lanterns on Liberty Tree in the South End.

That number had plenty of political symbolism. The royal government had tried to suppress the 45th issue of John Wilkes’s magazine The North Briton in April 1763 for coming too close to criticizing King George III. That blew up into a controversy over freedom of the press, general warrants, and parliamentary privilege.

“No. 45” had thus become Whig shorthand for resisting oppressive measures by the royal government, even for people who were also proclaiming their loyalty to the king.

However, in the midst of all the other illumination in Boston that night, a mere forty-five lanterns evidently got lost in the branches of the big elm. Plus, once their obelisk burned up, the Loyall Nine needed another way to keep the party going at Liberty Tree.

It’s conceivable that other Boston politicians thought a Wilkesite number was too radical, but I’m not convinced. The town’s genteel Whigs tried to forge a long-distance alliance with Wilkes in the following years, and they continued to use “No. 45” symbolism; one famous example is the silver bowl that Paul Revere made and engraved in 1767.

I’m therefore inclined to take this Boston Gazette report at face value:
On Tuesday Evening some of the Sons of Liberty apprehending the Lanthorns hung on the Tree of Liberty, which the Night before amounted only to the ever memorable No 45, would have made a more loyal and striking Appearance if increased to the glorious Majority of 108, met and procuring that Number, disposed them on the Tree in a very agreeable picturesque Manner.
The “glorious Majority of 108” was the difference between the number of Members of Parliament who had voted to repeal the Stamp Act and the number who had wanted to retain it. As far as I can tell, American Whigs never celebrated a vote margin like that any other time. They probably chose that number because it was closest to how many lanterns they figured they could collect.

And that wasn’t all the decorating they did down in “Hanover Square”:
The Houses next adjoining and opposite were decorated with Figures characteristic of Those to whom we bear the deepest Loyalty and Gratitude: Here, an imperfect Portrait of their Majesties, our most gracious King and Queen—there, the Royal Arms;—here, the illustrious Campden, Pitt, Conway, Barre, and others of late so conspicuous in the Cause of Liberty and their Country:
Another report printed in the same newspaper said that on Tuesday Liberty Tree had been hung with lanterns “till the Boughs could hold no more,” and that the windows of nearby houses “were covered with illustrated Figures as large as the Life, the Colours all in a glow with the Lights behind them.”

In particular, the front windows of Thomas Dawes and Thomas Symmes displayed “An elegant Portrait of Mr. [William] PITT” with the inscription:
Hail, PITT! Hail, Patrons! Pride of GEORGE’s Days.
How round the Globe expand your Patriot Rays!
And the NEW WORLD is brighten’d with the Blaze.
Pitt was immensely popular in America, and he had strongly advocated repealing the Stamp Act. However, he wasn’t otherwise offering much help to the the Marquess of Rockingham’s Whig ministry. He refused to accept a cabinet post, but he would jump at the job of prime minister in July.

TOMORROW: Looking at a lantern.

[The photo above shows the Disney version of hanging lanterns on Liberty Tree from Johnny Tremain.]

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