Sons of Liberty

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1765 Broadside

The Sons of Liberty was an organization of American landowners that was created in the Thirteen American Colonies. The secret society was formed to protect the rights of the colonists and to fight taxation by the British government. They are best known for undertaking the Boston Tea Party in 1773 in reaction to new taxes. Britain responded with the Intolerable Acts, and a counter-mobilization by the Patriots.[1]

In the popular imagination, the Sons of Liberty was a formal underground organization with recognized members and leaders. More likely, the name was an underground term for any men resisting new Crown taxes and laws.[2] The well-known label allowed organizers to issue anonymous summons to a Liberty Tree, "Liberty Pole", or other public meeting-place. Furthermore, a unifying name helped to promote inter-Colonial efforts against Parliament and the Crown's actions. Their motto became, "No taxation without representation."[3]


The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print referring to the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also poured hot tea down Malcolm's throat; note the noose hanging on the Liberty Tree, and the Stamp Act posted upside-down

After defeating France in the French and Indian War, the British government sought to pay for keeping 10,000 officers and soldiers in the colonies, and intended that the colonists contribute.[4] It passed a series of taxes, and when the Americans refused to pay on the argument of "No Taxation without Representation" (there were no colonial representatives in Parliament), Parliament insisted on its right to rule the colonies.[5] The most incendiary tax was the Stamp Act of 1765, which caused a firestorm of opposition through legislative resolutions (starting in Virginia), public demonstrations,[6] threats, and occasional hurtful losses.[7]

The organization spread month by month, after independent starts in several different colonies. August 1765 celebrated the founding of the group in Boston.[8] By November 6, a committee was set up in New York to correspond with other colonies. In December an alliance was formed between groups in New York and Connecticut. January bore witness to a correspondence link between Boston and New York City, and by March, Providence had initiated connections with New York, New Hampshire, and Newport, Rhode Island. March also marked the emergence of Sons of Liberty organizations in New Jersey, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, and a local group established in North Carolina was attracting interest in South Carolina and Georgia.[9]

1846 artist's impression of the Boston Tea Party

The leaders of the Sons of Liberty heralded mostly from the middle class, artisans, traders, lawyers and local politicians. However there were members of the Sons of Liberty who had influential power with the people such as Benjamin Edes, a printer, and John Gill of the Boston Gazette. They produced a steady stream of news and opinion.”[10] Samuel Adams was connected to the Boston Gazette and published many articles under a pen name. This implies that Samuel Adams probably was participatory in the organization through writing, shared opinion, and association with prominent members. Though they were speaking out against the actions of the British government, they still claimed to be loyal to the Crown. Their initial goal was to ensure their rights as Englishmen. Throughout the Stamp Act Crisis, the Sons of Liberty professed continued loyalty to the King because they maintained a "fundamental confidence" in the expectation that Parliament would do the right thing and repeal the tax.[11]

To add weight to their cause, the Sons of Liberty knew they needed to appeal to the masses that made up the lower classes.[12] Several members of the Sons of Liberty were printers/publishers and distributed articles about the meetings and demonstrations the Sons of Liberty held, as well as about the fundamental political beliefs of the group and what they wanted to accomplish. They related in print the major events of the struggle against the new acts to promote their cause and vilify the local officers of the British government. Office holders identified by the Sons of Liberty as being part of the Stamp Act injustice quickly fell out of favor and lost their positions once local elections were held again. The Sons of Liberty would hold meetings to decide which candidates to support—those that would bring about the desired political change. In return, the British authorities attempted to denigrate the Sons of Liberty by referring to them as the "Sons of Violence" or the "Sons of Iniquity."[13]

Furthermore, the inter-communication afforded the Colonies by the widespread nature of the Sons of Liberty allowed for decisive action against the Townshend Act in 1768. One by one the groups penned agreements limiting trade with Britain and imposing a highly effective boycott against importation and sale of British goods.[14]

The burning of the Gaspee.

In many cases their public meetings turned violent.[15] Though the lower classes often agreed with the ideas presented by the Sons of Liberty, they wanted more action than words and simple shows of numbers. As such, the property of the gentry, customs officers and other British authorities often fell victim to the volatile nature of mobs.[16]

In New York City the Sons of Liberty would put up liberty poles to stand as a testament to their resolve. The British soldiers would tear them down almost as soon as they were put up. This back and forth action resulted in several skirmishes between the two sides. Most notable among these engagements was the Battle of Golden Hill on January 19, 1770, in which many people were injured and at least one killed. Violent outbreaks over the pole raged intermittently from 1766 until the Patriots gained control of New York City government in April 1775.

In Boston, another example of the violence they committed could be found in their treatment of a local stamp distributor, Andrew Oliver. They burned his effigy in the streets. When he did not resign, they escalated to burning down his office building. Even after he resigned, they almost destroyed the whole house of his close associate, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. It is believed that the Sons of Liberty did this to excite the lower classes and get them actively involved in rebelling against the authorities. Their violent actions made many of the stamp distributors resign in fear.

The Sons of Liberty were also responsible for the burning of the Gaspee in 1772.

In December 1773, the Sons of Liberty issued and distributed a declaration in New York City called the Association of the Sons of Liberty in New York, which formally stated their opposition to the Tea Act and that anyone who assisted in the execution of the act was "an enemy to the liberties of America" and that "whoever shall transgress any of these resolutions, we will not deal with, or employ, or have any connection with him". The Sons of Liberty took direct action to enforce their opposition to the Tea Act at the Boston Tea Party. Members of the group, wearing disguises meant to evoke the appearance of Native American Indians, poured several tons of tea into the Boston Harbor in protest of the Tea Act. The Sons of Liberty sat in the long room above member Benjamin Edes's print shop and planned the famous tea party. During the planning, the Sons of Liberty drank from a punch bowl later donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

Early in the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty generally evolved into or were superseded by more formal groups such as the Committee of Safety.

After the end of the American Revolutionary War, Isaac Sears along with Marinus Willet and John Lamb, in New York City, revived the Sons of Liberty. In March 1784, they rallied an enormous crowd that called for the expulsion of any remaining Loyalists from the state starting May 1. The Sons of Liberty were able to gain enough seats in the New York assembly elections of December 1784 to have passed a set of punitive laws against Loyalists. In violation of the Treaty of Paris (1783) they called for the confiscation of the property of Loyalists.[17] Alexander Hamilton defended the Loyalists citing the supremacy of the treaty.


Nine stripe Sons of Liberty flag

In 1767, the Sons of Liberty adopted a flag called the rebellious stripes flag with nine vertical stripes, five red and four white. A flag having 13 horizontal red and black stripes, used by American merchant ships during the war, was also associated with the Sons of Liberty. While red and white were common colors of the flags, other color combinations, such as green and white or yellow and white, were used.[18][19]

Notable members[edit]

On July 7, 1774 Paul Revere altered the cartoon to fit the masthead of the Massachusetts Spy.

Later societies[edit]

At various times, small secret organizations took the name "Sons of liberty". They generally get very few records.

The name was also used during the American Civil War.[23] By 1864 the Copperhead group the Knights of the Golden Circle, set up an offshoot called Order of the Sons of Liberty. They both came under federal prosecution in 1864 for treason, especially in Indiana.[24]

In 1948 in response to British policies in Palestine, a radical wing of the Zionist movement launched a boycott in the U.S. against British films. It called itself the "Sons of Liberty."[25]

Modern references[edit]

The patriotic spirit of the Sons of Liberty has been used by Walt Disney Pictures through their 1957 film adaptation of Esther Forbes's novel Johnny Tremain. Within the movie the Sons of Liberty sing a rousing song titled "The Liberty Tree". This song raises the Liberty Tree to a national icon in a manner similar to the way George M. Cohan's "You're a Grand Old Flag" revitalized adoration for the American flag in the early twentieth century.

The Sons of Liberty are referenced in the 2001 video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It references them in the title, while a group within the game calls itself, and models itself after, the Sons of Liberty.

In 2015 a 3 part mini-series aired on the History Channel with the same name.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fremont-Barnes, Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies (2007) 1:688
  2. ^ Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies (2007) 1:688
  3. ^ Frank Lambert (2005). James Habersham: loyalty, politics, and commerce in colonial Georgia. U. of Georgia Press. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-8203-2539-2. 
  4. ^ John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston, 1943) p. 74.
  5. ^ John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston, 1943)
  6. ^ Such as by the local judges and Frederick, Maryland. See Thomas John Chew Williams (1979). History of Frederick County, Maryland. Genealogical Publishing Co. pp. 78–79. 
  7. ^ Miller, Origins of the American Revolution pp. 121, 129–130
  8. ^ Anger, p. 135
  9. ^ Mainers pp. 78–81
  10. ^ "The Sons of Liberty". 
  11. ^ Maier p. 101-106; Miller p. 139. Miller wrote, "Had Great Britain attempted to enforce the Stamp Act, there can be little doubt that British troops and embattled Americans would have shed each other's blood ten years before Lexington. As Benjamin Franklin remarked, '[Britain] would not have found a rebellion in the American colonies in 1765 but it would have made one.' In addition to believing the patriotic movements "they fell down and died".
  12. ^ Miller, Origins of the American Revolution p. 131
  13. ^ Christopher Hibbert, Redcoats and rebels: the American Revolution through British eyes (2002) p 9
  14. ^ Gary Minda, Boycott in America: how imagination and ideology shape the legal mind (1999) p. 33
  15. ^ Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, This violent empire: the birth of an American national identity (2010) p 91
  16. ^ Smith-Rosenberg, This violent empire: the birth of an American national identity (2010) p 125
  17. ^ Schecter, pg. 382
  18. ^ Colonial and Revolutionary War Flags (U.S.)
  19. ^ Liberty Flags (U.S.)
  20. ^ Dave R. Plamer (2010). George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots. Regnery Publishing. p. 3. 
  21. ^ Ira Stoll (2008). Samuel Adams: A Life. Free Press. pp. 76–77. 
  22. ^ David H. Fischer (1995). Paul Revere's ride. Oxford University Press. p. 22. 
  23. ^ Baker, pg. 341
  24. ^ David C. Keehn (2013). Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War. Louisiana State UP. p. 173. 
  25. ^ Kerry Segrave (2004). Foreign Films in America: A History. McFarland. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-7864-8162-0. 


  • Baker, Jean (1983), Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-1513-6 
  • Becker, Carl (1901), "Growth of Revolutionary Parties and Methods in New York Province 1765–1774", American Historical Review 7 (1): 56–76, doi:10.2307/1832532, ISSN 0002-8762, JSTOR 1832532 
  • Champagne, Roger J. (1967), "Liberty Boys and Mechanics of New York City, 1764–1774", Labor History 8 (2): 115–135, ISSN 0023-656X 
  • Champagne, Roger J. (1964), "New York's Radicals and the Coming of Independence", Journal of American History 51 (1): 21–40, doi:10.2307/1917932, ISSN 0021-8723, JSTOR 1917932 
  • Dawson, Henry Barton. The Sons of Liberty in New York (1859) 118 pages; online edition
  • Foner, Philip Sheldon. Labor and the American Revolution (1976) Westport, CN: Greenwood. 258 pages.
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles (2006), Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos The Reshaped America, New York: Public Affairs, ISBN 1-58648-355-2 
  • Irvin, Benjamin H. (2003), "Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768–1776", New England Quarterly 76 (2): 197–238, doi:10.2307/1559903, ISSN 0028-4866, JSTOR 1559903 
  • Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party (1964).
  • Maier, Pauline (1991) [1972], From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776, New York: W.W. Norton, ISBN 0-393-30825-1 
  • Maier, Pauline. "Reason and Revolution: The Radicalism of Dr. Thomas Young," American Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 2, (Summer, 1976), pp. 229–249 in JSTOR
  • Middlekauff, Robert (2005), The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789, Oxford University Press, ISBN 019531588X 
  • Miller, John C. (1943), Origins of the American Revolution, Boston: Little-Brown 
  • Morais, Herbert M. (1939), "The Sons of Liberty in New York", in Morris, Richard B., The Era of the American Revolution, pp. 269–289 , a Marxist interpretation
  • Nash, Gary B. (2005), The Unknown Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, London: Viking, ISBN 0-670-03420-7 
  • Schecter, Barnet (2002), The Battle of New York, New York: Walker, ISBN 0-8027-1374-2 
  • Smith, Page (1976), A New Age Now Begins, New York: McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-059097-4 
  • Unger, Harlow (2000), John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot, Edison, NJ: Castle Books, ISBN 0-7858-2026-4 
  • Walsh, Richard. Charleston's Sons of Liberty: A Study of the Artisans, 1763–1789 (1968)

External links[edit]