Sons of Liberty

August 1765–c. 1774

The Sons of Liberty was a radical organization in Colonial America created to carry out public demonstrations against British policies that forced Americans to pay taxes without representation in Parliament. Many men associated with the group are considered Founding Fathers of the United States.

Sons of Liberty, American Revolution, Facts, Significance, History, APUSH

Samuel Adams was associated with the Loyal Nine and the Sons of Liberty. The illustration includes a portrait of Adams (MFA Boston), Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” political cartoon, and the flag used by the Sons of Liberty.

Who were the Sons of Liberty?

Sons of Liberty Summary

The Sons of Liberty — also known as the Liberty Boys — was a radical group of American colonists in Colonial America that often met in secret in order to plan public protests against the policies of the British government. The first group was formed in Boston in 1765 and quickly spread throughout the colonies. The groups were responsible for organizing riots, vandalism of homes, and harassing government officials — including tarring and feathering. The most prominent groups were in Boston and New York, where they clashed with British authorities from 1765 to the opening of the American Revolutionary War. The Sons of Liberty were involved in the Stamp Act Riots, but their most famous acts were the Gaspee Affair and the Boston Tea Party. Over time, the group reduced violence and took a more political route to protest by forming Committees of Correspondence. Many men associated with the Sons of Liberty, including Samuel Adams, John Adams, Samuel Chase, Christopher Gadsden, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Rush, are Founding Fathers who played key roles in the establishment of the independent United States of America.

This illustration depicts the destruction of the schooner Gaspée in the waters of Rhode Island in 1772. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Sons of Liberty Facts

  1. The Sons of Liberty also went by the name “Liberty Boys.”
  2. The name “Sons of Liberty” came from a speech made in Parliament by Isaac Barré in 1765 in protest of the Stamp Act. 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.”
  3. The organization started in 1765 to carry out protests against the Stamp Act during the Stamp Act Crisis.
  4. The members were mainly merchants, artisans, and laborers who believed the British government was violating their rights as Englishmen, as defined in the English Bill of Rights.
  5. Early demonstrations were often violent, which led to criticism throughout the colonies. However, the groups turned to less volatile forms of protest against British colonial policy.
  6. The Sons of Liberty spread their beliefs about British colonial policies through Committees of Correspondence, pamphlets, and newspapers.
  7. The most famous acts of resistance carried out by the Sons of Liberty were the Stamp Act Riots, the Gaspee Affair, and the Boston Tea Party.
  8. The Sons of Liberty were also involved in the Battle of Golden Hill in New York City in 1770, which preceded the Boston Massacre.
  9. By the time of the American Revolution, each colony had its own Sons of Liberty groups in towns and cities.
  10. The Sons of Liberty ended around 1774 when the 13 Original Colonies started to form their own provincial governments.

Sons of Liberty History and Overview

Origin of the Organization

The origin of the Sons of Liberty is unclear, but the organization likely started in Boston and was followed closely by a second group operating in New York City. The groups formed after news reached America that the Stamp Act was passed by Parliament. The Boston group is believed to have grown out of smaller groups who merged together, starting with the “Loyal Nine.”

The members of the Loyal Nine were:

  1. John Avery, a distiller
  2. Henry Bass, a jeweler
  3. Thomas Chase, a distiller
  4. Stephen Cleverly, a brazier
  5. Thomas Crafts Jr., a painter
  6. Benjamin Edes, owner and printer of the Boston Gazette newspaper
  7. Joseph Field, a ship captain
  8. John Smith, a brazier
  9. George Trott, a jeweler

Founding Father Samuel Adams is often referred to as a member of the Loyal Nine and the “founder” of the Sons of Liberty. While Adams no doubt was connected to the group through his cousin Henry Bass, he was not a core member of the Loyal Nine.

While the Loyal Nine and their associates, which included Adams, were responsible for planning demonstrations, they worked out deals with Boston gangs to carry them out. The prominent ones were the South End Gang, led by Ebenezer Mackintosh, and the North End Gang, led by Henry Swift. Members of the Loyal Nine and the South End Gang were involved in the First Boston Stamp Act Riot, which took place on August 14, 1765. Over time, the Boston leaders of the Sons of Liberty included prominent figures of the American Revolution, including:

In New York, the leaders included Hercules Mulligan, Alexander McDougall, Marinus Willett, John Lamb, and Isaac Sears. It is believed Mulligan, an Irish immigrant, and prominent merchant, was responsible for starting the New York Sons of Liberty and invited the others to join him. 

General Alexander McDougall, Illustration
Alexander McDougall. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Origin of the Name “Sons of Liberty”

Following the passage of the Sugar Act and Currency Act, British Prime Minister George Grenville started working on the Stamp Act. The bill was drafted by Thomas Whately, and both Whately and Grenville discussed it with some of the agents for the colonies, including Benjamin Franklin, Jarod Ingersoll of Connecticut, and William Knox of Georgia. Despite objections to the act, the agents were unable to present an alternative, so Grenville moved ahead and introduced it to the House of Commons on February 6, 1765

During that session, Isaac Barré gave a speech, criticizing the Stamp Act and referring 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.” Despite Barré’s protest, the bill passed both Houses of Parliament. It received Royal Assent on March 22 and was scheduled to take effect on November 1, 1765.

By August, after the First Boston Stamp Act Riot, Samuel Adams wrote an article that appeared in Benjamin Edes’ Boston Gazette. Adams used the name and said:

“The Sons of Liberty on the 14th of August 1765, a Day which ought to be for ever remembered in America, animated with a zeal for their country then upon the brink of destruction, and resolved, at once to save her…”

Members from Different Social Classes

Membership was made up of men from all walks of life, but was largely controlled by the upper class — merchants, politicians, and clergy. However, they created connections with the working class and lower classes — often people who were willing to cause trouble. Over time, some members identified themselves by wearing medallions around their necks. The medallions were stamped with a figure grasping a pole on one side, with the words Sons of Liberty, and a Liberty Tree on the other.

Meeting Places, Liberty Trees, and Liberty Poles

The Sons of Liberty often met indoors, where meetings could be conducted in secret. In Boston, the members were known to meet at Edes print shop or a room at the Green Dragon Tavern. In New York, they were known to meet at Fraunces Tavern. 

As their reputation grew, so did their boldness. The Sons of Liberty in Boston eventually held their meetings in public, under the “Tree of Liberty” that stood at the corner of Washington Street and Essex Street. At the time, the tree was referred to as the Tree of Liberty but is more commonly referred to as simply the “Liberty Tree” today. The Boston Liberty Tree was an old elm tree, estimated to be at least 120 years old.

After the Stamp Act was repealed, Liberty Poles were erected to celebrate the end of the Stamp Act Crisis. Over time, the Liberty Poles became targets of British soldiers and Loyalists, especially in New York City, where an ongoing dispute over the Liberty Pole led to the Battle of Golden Hill in January 1770.

This illustration depicts the Boston Tree of Libert in 1774. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Sons of Liberty and the Stamp Act

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 Native American Indian allies that lived throughout the Ohio Country. This led Parliament to develop and implement legislation that levied taxes on the colonies. The first act that eliminated Salutary Neglect and enforced the collection of taxes was the Sugar Act. It was quickly followed by the Stamp Act in 1765, which led to the rallying cry of “no taxation without representation.” 

The first Sons of Liberty groups were organized to protest the Stamp Act and the name was derived from Barré’s speech when he 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 started to form, first in the Province of Massachusetts Bay and then in the Province of New York, as 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.

The groups 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.

Stamp Act, Tarring and Feathering a Stamp Agent
This illustration depicts colonists tarring and feathering a Stamp Agent. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

As the Stamp Act Crisis intensified in 1765, more groups appeared and were usually based around large cities and ports, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Charleston. They included prominent men such as:

Despite the violence, the groups were also instrumental in passing resolutions in protest of the Stamp Act. The most famous of those resolves was Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolves.

The groups were also involved in setting up a meeting to discuss a unified colonial response to the Stamp Act. 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.

Ultimately, the unrest in America, along with protests from British merchants, forced Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in March 1766. Parliament hoped the repeal would put an end to the groups and their meddling in government affairs, but it was wrong. Instead, the movement grew in both numbers and political strength, as members were elected to colonial legislatures. Their public demonstrations started to move more towards theatrics, such as the burning of officials in effigy, and the groups communicated with each other through Committees of Correspondence.

Patrick Henry, Founding Father, Illustration
Patrick Henry. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Sons of Liberty and Organized Violence

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 group was largely seen as a violent, lawless mob. Some of the prominent events involving the Sons of Liberty were:

First Boston Stamp Act Riot

On August 14, 1765, a violent demonstration took place in Boston. Andrew Oliver, the Stamp Agent for the district, was burned in effigy and his office was attacked. Oliver was forced to resign from his position by reading a letter in front of a mob.

Second Boston Stamp Act Riot

On August 26, another riot took place in Boston. This time the angry mob attacked the homes of William Story, deputy register of the Vice-Admiralty Court, and Benjamin Hallowell, comptroller of customs. Then the mob moved on to the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, where they ransacked the house, did considerable damage, and stole money. Hutchinson and his family were able to escape from the house before the mob attacked.

New York Stamp Act Riot

On October 31, New York merchants met and agreed to stop buying and selling British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. The day the Stamp Act went into effect, a riot took place in New York. It is referred to as the “General Terror of November 1–4.” Cadwallader Colden, the acting Governor of New York, took refuge in Fort George, which was attacked by an angry mob. Colden was forced to turn the stamped paper over to city officials.

The Liberty Affair

After the Stamp Act was repealed, Parliament still levied taxes on the colonies. Over the course of a year, the Townshend Acts were passed that established new taxes and regulations in the colonies. Anger over the Townshend Acts led to various acts of resistance. In Boston, John Hancock refused to allow customs officials to inspect one of his ships. The incident, known as the Liberty Affair, led to a riot and personal attacks on customs officials. Britain responded by sending troops to occupy Boston.

John Hancock, Portrait, Copley
John Hancock. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Battle of the Liberty Poles

After the Stamp Act was repealed, the people of New York held a celebration on June 4, 1766 — King George III’s birthday — to celebrate. The people were joined by British officials and military officers for the celebration. The Sons of Liberty erected a pole, which had a flag on top with the words, “The King, Pitt, and Liberty.” The pole became known as New York City’s Liberty Pole, and the location upset the soldiers who lived in nearby barracks. Over the next four years, the pole would be cut down — or blown up — several times by the soldiers. Each time, the Sons of Liberty would put up a new one. The continuous back and forth over the Liberty Pole raised tensions between the soldiers and people, which contributed to the violent fighting that took place in January 1770.

The Battle of Golden Hill

The Battle of Golden Hill was a street fight between the New York Sons of Liberty and British troops stationed in the city. In December 1769, the New York Assembly agreed to a scheme devised by Cadwallader Colden which the Sons of Liberty believed was intended to raise money to help support British troops. The Sons of Liberty protested publicly, and Alexander McDougall published a pamphlet that criticized raising money for the troops. British troops cut down the Liberty Pole and posted their own handbill around the city. On January 19, the Sons of Liberty grabbed two soldiers and tried to have them arrested, which led to fighting that spilled over into the next day.

Battle of Golden Hill, Painting, Lefferts
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.

The Gaspee Affair

The Gaspee Affair was a dispute between British officials and colonial officials over how to handle the Gaspee Incident. The incident took place from June 9–10, 1772, and included Rhode Islanders — primarily members of the Providence Sons of Liberty — attacking the British schooner HMS Gaspee, shooting a British naval officer, and destroying the ship by setting it on fire. In the aftermath, British officials investigating the incident wanted to arrest the men responsible and take them to Britain to stand trial. Americans were outraged and believed the right to a fair trial would be violated. Great Britain’s response to the Gaspee Affair led Virginia to call for the colonies to establish a permanent network of Committees of Correspondence.

The Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was a political protest that took place on the night of December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts. A mob of colonists, which had been organized by the Sons of Liberty, boarded three ships that were carrying tea owned by the British East India Company. They smashed open more than 300 chests of tea and then dumped the tea into Boston Harbor. Parliament responded to the incident by passing the Intolerable Acts, which were a direct cause of the American Revolutionary War.

The Sons of Liberty and Organized Political Resistance

In 1772, the first permanent Committee of Correspondence was organized in Boston by 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.

John Lamb Speaking to New York Sons of Liberty
This illustration depicts John Lamb — a leader in the New York Sons of Liberty — reading the text of the Tea Act in 1773. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

End of the Sons of Liberty

After the Coercive Acts — or the Intolerable 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, as its members became involved in more legitimate means, namely provincial governments like the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and local committees.

Sons of Liberty Significance

The Sons of Liberty is important to the history of the United States because it was an effective — although often 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, and the Continental Congress, and became Founding Fathers.

Sons of Liberty APUSH

Use the following links and videos to study the Sons of Liberty, Colonial America, and the American Revolution for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Sons of Liberty APUSH Definition

The Sons of Liberty was an organization formed by American colonists in the early years of the American Revolution. The group used acts of civil disobedience and violence to protest British taxation and to push for independence. The group was active from 1765 until the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Many men associated with the group were involved in the establishment of the United States as an independent nation.

American History Central Resources and Related Topics

The Sons of Liberty Video — The Daily Bellringer

This video from the Daily Bellringer provides an overview of the Sons of Liberty.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Sons of Liberty
  • Date August 1765–c. 1774
  • Author
  • Keywords Sons of Liberty, Stamp Act Crisis, Stamp Act Riots, Gaspee Affair, Boston Tea Party, Who were the Sons of Liberty, What did the Sons of Liberty Do, When did the Sons of Liberty organize, Where did the Sons of Liberty meet, Why did the Sons of Liberty oppose No Taxation Without Representation, How did the Sons of Liberty protest British taxation, Sons of Liberty Summary, Sons of Liberty Facts, Sons of Liberty Significance, Sons of Liberty History, Sons of Liberty APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 25, 2024

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