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.
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 the 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 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.
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.
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.
In 1772, the first Committee of Correspondence was set up in Boston, at the behest of Samuel Adams. 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.
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.
The Boston Sons of Liberty is the most well-known and the mob faction was made up largely of men of the working class of North Boston. They were responsible for looting the home of Governor Thomas Hutchison and burning the records of the Vice-Admiralty Court. The leaders were known as the Loyal Nine, and the leadership included prominent figures of the American Revolution such as:
In its most famous act of defiance against the Crown, 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:
- John Lamb in New York
- Israel Putnam in Connecticut
- William Bradford in Pennsylvania
- Christopher Gadsden in South Carolina
- Patrick Henry in Virginia
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 allure 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.