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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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

New York’s Sons of Liberty at the Fraunces Tavern

Today the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City opens its new exhibition, “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty.” This display will remain on view in the Mesick Gallery for the next two years.

The museum’s announcement says:
On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution.

The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.
The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow.

As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier.

New York’s Sons of Liberty definitely originated Liberty Poles. They showed their patriotism by flying a British flag—while also tussling with British soldiers quartered nearby. The soldiers resented what they probably saw as hypocrisy or effrontery, and that produced a series of brawls, attempts to fell the locals’ flagpole, and erections of even larger flagpoles. Because when it came to Liberty Poles, size mattered.

In March 1770 the Sons of Liberty John Lamb and William Cunningham reportedly bought land for New York’s biggest Liberty Pole yet. Five years later when the war broke out, Lamb became a Continental Army artillery officer while Cunningham became provost, or head of prisoners, for the British army. I’d love to know more about Cunningham’s career in New York before 1775. Will this exhibit have something to say?

Among the artifacts to be displayed in the Fraunces Tavern’s largest room are “an iron fence fragment from the tearing down of the King George III statue in Bowling Green Park” in 1776 after the reading of the Declaration of Independence. A few months later, the royal forces took the city, and the Sons of Liberty had to go into hiding for more than six years. Perhaps a future Fraunces Tavern Museum exhibit will look at the New York City as the center of Loyalism during most of the war.

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