Who Were the Sons of Liberty?

The Sons of Liberty were born out of a desire by several Bostonians to oppose the Stamp Act of 1765. In it, the British Parliament required that anything printed – legal documents, books, newspapers – as well as blank paper bought to write letters and diaries had to either be embossed by the appropriate stamp or an ink “stamp.”

A “stamp tax collector” would collect the tax for King George each time he affixed a stamp. Opposition to the Stamp Act began in Virginia and spread quickly throughout the Thirteen Colonies.

Since there were no Colonial members of Parliament, this led to the commonly used justification opposing paying the taxes imposed by the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts as “no taxation without representation.”

Oddly enough, opponents to the Stamp Act (and later the Intolerable Acts of 1773) were spurred on by an Irish MP Isaac Barré’s speech in Parliament on February 6th, 1765. Barré agreed that the Colonists should not be forced to pay taxes on which they did not vote approval.

On the floor of the House of Commons, Barré said “… As soon as you began to care about ’em, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule over ’em, in one department and another, who were perhaps the deputies of deputies to some member of this house, sent to spy out their liberty, to misrepresent their actions and to prey upon ’em; men whose behaviour on many occasions has caused the blood of those sons of liberty to recoil within them….”

Those in the Thirteen Colonies opposing British rule adopted Barré’s phrase Sons of Liberty. So who were these men, and what did they do?

The Sons of Liberty was a clandestine organization that used many tactics such as writing and publishing pamphlets, editorials, making speeches in local assemblies, meetings, and committing violent acts such as tarring and feathering to help foment what became the American Revolution. Today we would classify some of the actions taken by the Sons of Liberty as domestic terrorism.

For example, before the Boston Tea Party, they harassed Boston Stamp Act tax collector Andrew Oliver everywhere he went. Then, they hung him in effigy on the Boston Common. When Oliver continued to pursue his duties, the Sons of Liberty burned his house down.

Leading up to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty held several meetings in taverns around Boston to rile up their fellow citizens first against the Stamp Act and then against the Intolerable Acts, (see Blog Post 2/18/23 – The Price of Tea – https://marcliebman.com/the-price-of-tea/ ). Then, on December 16th, 1773, many of its members slipped out of the meetings, donned Mohawk Indian attire and dumped 46 tons of tea into the harbor.

While the Sons of Liberty members are not a complete Who’s Who of our Founding Fathers, many played prominent roles in the American Revolution. A few don’t need an introduction – Paul Revere, Samuel Adams (who founded Sons of Liberty), John Hancock, Benedict Arnold, and Patrick Henry.

Some of the other notable members included Samuel Edes, the publisher of the Boston Gazette; William Goddard who later helped Benjamin Franklin found the U.S. Post Office; financier Haym Salomon who single-handedly funded Washington’s campaign to defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown; and John Allicoke, a man of African ancestry. Many of the Sons of Liberty signed the Declaration of Independence.

Sadly, for security reasons, they left us very few records but the effect of their efforts galvanized the majority of the 2.5 million souls living in the Thirteen Colonies to fight and win an eight-year war for independence.

Image is Philip Dawes 1774 cartoon of the Sons of Liberty tarring and feathering British tax collector John Malcom.

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