The Sons of Liberty was a secret society that opposed British colonial policy prior to the American Revolution. The group included several prominent members, including Samuel Adams, who are now looked upon as Founding Fathers of the United States of America.
Sons of Liberty Summary
The Sons of Liberty — or the Liberty Boys — was a secret organization in Colonial America that was created to carry out public demonstrations against the policies of the British government. The Sons of Liberty were responsible for organizing riots, vandalism of homes, and harassing government officials — including tarring and feathering.
Sons of Liberty Quick Facts
- The Sons of Liberty also went by the name “Liberty Boys.”
- Isaac Barré gave them the name “Sons of Liberty” in a speech he delivered to Parliament in 1765.
- The Sons of Liberty started in 1765 to carry out protests against the Stamp Act during the Stamp Act Crisis.
- The most famous acts of resistance carried out by the Sons of Liberty were the Gaspee Incident and Affair and the Boston Tea Party.
- The Sons of Liberty ended around 1774 when the 13 Original Colonies started to form their own provincial governments.
The Sons of Liberty attacked and burned a British ship, the Gaspee, in 1772. Image Source: Gaspee Virtual Archives.
Sons of Liberty Begin — The Stamp Act Crisis
After the French and Indian War, Parliament looked for ways to reduce the debt incurred by the war and to have the American colonies pay for part of the ongoing defense of the frontier from the French and their tribal allies that populated the Ohio Country. This led Parliament to develop and implement legislation that levied taxes on the colonies.
The rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” became popular after Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765. Nine of the American colonies responded by sending delegates to participate in the Stamp Act Congress, which was held in New York City in October 1765.
Meanwhile, a clandestine, subversive movement began to form, especially in Massachusetts and the New England colonies. Small groups of like-minded people, who were opposed to what they felt were oppressive British policies, started to band together. The organization of the groups was informal and their meetings were held in secret. They were usually controlled by business owners, lawyers, teachers, and other men who had a good education, and those men used propaganda to stir up the less-educated members of their communities. These groups came to be known as the Sons of Liberty.
The first chapters were organized in 1765 in New York and Massachusetts to protest the Stamp Act and the name was derived from a speech made in Parliament by Isaac Barré in 1765. During his speech, Barré referred to the royal governors in the colonies as “men whose behavior on many occasions had caused the blood of those sons of liberty to recoil within them.”
The Sons of Liberty organized boycotts against the Stamp Act and coordinated their actions. In 1765, from August through December, they carried out harassment of tax collectors and government officials who were supposed to enforce the act. The harassment often turned physical and violent, as they were known to tar and feather people they disagreed with and vandalize property. These actions, along with protests from British merchants, forced Parliament to repeal the act in March 1766.
Parliament hoped the repeal of the Stamp Act would put an end to the Sons of Liberty and their meddling in government affairs, but Parliament was wrong. Instead, the movement grew in both numbers and political strength, as members of the Sons of Liberty were elected to colonial legislatures. Their public demonstrations began to move more towards theatrics, such as the burning of officials in effigy.
Sons of Liberty and Liberty Poles
Over time, some members identified themselves by wearing medallions around their necks. The medallions were stamped with a liberty pole on one side and a liberty tree on the other. As their reputation grew, so did their boldness. The Sons of Liberty in Boston eventually held their meetings in public, under the Liberty Tree that stood at the corner of Washington Street and Essex Street. Liberty poles were put up throughout the colonies and were common targets of British soldiers and supporters.
In New York City, the Sons of Liberty erected a Liberty Pole that British troops cut down. Each time the troops cut it down, the Sons of Liberty put up a new one. This eventually led to the Battle of Golden Hill in January 1770 when British soldiers attacked citizens of New York. The New York Sons of Liberty retaliated by attacking the soldiers in an effort to protect the citizens.
This painting depicts British soldiers fighting with the citizens of New York at the Battle of Golden Hill. Image Source: New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.
Sons of Liberty and Organized Protests
The Sons of Liberty expressed their displeasure with the Stamp Act and, later, the Tea Act by distributing correspondence within the colonies and through numerous publications. The groups also sponsored public demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent. The radical nature of these demonstrations was instrumental in polarizing relations between Britain and the colonies, and the Sons of Liberty stood firm on the idea that the people should govern themselves. Despite their intentions, the Sons were largely seen as a violent, lawless mob.
Despite the often violent nature of the groups, they became more organized over time and became the springboard for new political and communication methods that set the stage for the American response to the Coercive Acts, which were passed in 1774.
Sons of Liberty and Organized Political Resistance
In 1772, the first Committee of Correspondence was set up in Boston, at the behest of Samuel Adams. Many of the members of the Boston Committee were also members of the Sons of Liberty. The purpose of the committee was to write and send circular letters to the towns in Massachusetts and to the other colonies. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry led the push to set up a committee for their colony. Other colonies did the same, and members of the Sons of Liberty were usually involved.
When the Massachusetts assembly was dissolved as part of the Massachusetts Government Act in 1774, the members of the assembly eventually set up the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. This served as the government of the colony after the war broke out on April 19, 1775.
Small committees, known as Committees of Safety, were set up to manage and plan the defenses of the towns in the event war broke out. The Boston committee played a key role on the night of April 18, when Governor Thomas Gage sent troops to Concord to seize weapons and ammunition that were being stored there by American militia forces.
Sons of Liberty Leaders
The Boston Sons of Liberty is probably the most well-known group of the Sons of Liberty. The leaders were made up of politicians and business leaders, and the mob faction was made up largely of men of the working class of North Boston. The mob was responsible for looting the home of Governor Thomas Hutchison and burning the records of the Vice-Admiralty Court during the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765. The leaders in Boston were known as the Loyal Nine, and the Sons of Liberty included prominent figures of the American Revolution such as:
In its most famous acts of defiance against the Crown, the Providence group carried out the destruction of the British ship Gaspee in 1772, and the Boston group planned and carried out the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
Other prominent leaders and members of the Sons of Liberty throughout the colonies included:
- Isaac Sears, John Lamb, and Alexander McDougall in New York.
- Israel Putnam and Benedict Arnold in Connecticut.
- Benjamin Rush, Charles Thomson, and William Bradford in Pennsylvania.
- Christopher Gadsden in South Carolina.
- Patrick Henry in Virginia.
This illustration depicts John Lamb — a leader in the New York Sons of Liberty — reading the text of the Tea Act in 1773.
End of the Sons of Liberty
After the Coercive Acts were passed in 1774, most of the colonies joined together to work in unison to deal with British policy. Building on the concept of the Stamp Act Congress, twelve of the thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia in September 1774 in the First Continental Congress.
From then on, the popularity of the Sons of Liberty diminished, and it was replaced by more legitimate means, namely provincial governments like the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and local committees.
Sons of Liberty Important Facts
Key facts and important details about the Sons of Liberty for kids doing research and students studying for the AP U.S. History (APUSH) exam.
- The Sons of Liberty was a group of American colonists who organized initially to protest the Stamp Act (1765).
- The Sons of Liberty originated in 1765.
- Historians are undecided on the origins of the Sons of Liberty. Some say the group originated in Massachusetts, others say New York.
- The name of the Sons of Liberty came from a speech made in Parliament by Isaac Barré in 1765. During his speech, Barré referred to the royal governors in the colonies as “…men whose behavior on many occasions had caused the blood of those sons of liberty to recoil within them.”
- By the time of the American Revolution, each colony had its own Sons of Liberty group.
- Leaders of the New York Sons of Liberty were Isaac Sears and Alexander McDougall.
- Leaders of the Massachusetts Sons of Liberty were likely Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and James Otis.
- The Sons of Liberty spread their beliefs about British colonial policies through correspondence and publications.
- The Sons of Liberty organized demonstrations that sometimes turned violent to protest British colonial policy.
- Many of the groups also referred to themselves as “Liberty Boys.”
Sons of Liberty Significance
The Sons of Liberty were important to the history of the United States because they were an effective — although violent — group that successfully coordinated efforts to resist the policies of the British government. Many members of the Sons of Liberty went on to serve on Committees of Correspondence, participate in the Provincial Congresses, the Continental Congress, and became Founding Fathers.