Sons of Liberty

Sons of Liberty

Sons of Liberty, secret organizations formed in the American colonies in protest against the Stamp Act (1765). They took their name from a phrase used by Isaac Barré in a speech against the Stamp Act in Parliament, and were organized by merchants, businessmen, lawyers, journalists, and others who would be most affected by the Stamp Act. The leaders included John Lamb and Alexander McDougall in New York, and Samuel Adams and James Otis in New England. The societies kept in touch with each other through committees of correspondence, supported the nonimportation agreement, forced the resignation of stamp distributors, and incited destruction of stamped paper and violence against British officials. They participated in calling the Continental Congress of 1774. In the Civil War, the Knights of the Golden Circle adopted (1864) the name Sons of Liberty.
The Sons of Liberty was a secret organization of American Patriots which originated in the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution. British authorities and their supporters known as Loyalists considered the Sons of Liberty as seditious rebels, referring to them as "Sons of Violence" and "Sons of Iniquity." Patriots attacked the apparatus and symbols of British authority and power such as property of the gentry, Customs officers, East India Company tea, and as the war approached, vocal supporters of the Crown.


In the popular imagination (as in the novel Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes), 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. Newspaper articles, handbills, referred to "True Born Sons of Liberty," "Sons of Freedom," "Liberty Boys", and "Daughters of Liberty." The label let organizers issue anonymous summons to a Liberty Tree, "Liberty Pole", or other public meeting-places, let Patriot groups in one town communicate with those elsewhere, and let any man or boy imagine himself a Son of Liberty. While the officers and leaders of the Sons of Liberty “were drawn almost entirely from the middle and upper ranks of colonial society, they recognized the need to expand their power base to include "the whole of political society, involving all of its social or economic subdivisions. Prominent leaders included Paul Revere, Thomas Young, Joseph Warren, Alexander McDougall, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Isaac Sears, John Lamb, James Otis, Marinus Willett, John Adams, and his cousin, Samuel Adams, who was a leader of the New England resistance. Silas Downer, a so-called "Forgotten Patriot", spoke as a Sons of Liberty member at one of the famed Liberty Trees in 1766. Members were drawn from across class distinctions, although these borders were less well-defined in colonial America. In order to do this, the Sons of Liberty relied on large public demonstrations to expand their base. They learned early on that controlling such crowds was problematical, although they strived to control "the possible violence of extra-legal gatherings. While the organization professed its loyalty to both local and British established government, possible military action as a defensive measure was always part of their considerations. 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.


Groups identifying themselves as Sons of Liberty existed in almost every colony. The organization spread month by month after independent starts in several different colonies. August 1765, was celebrated as the founding of the group in Boston. While Samuel Adams was the organizer of the Boston group, this group had formerly existed as the "Loyal Nine" and there is no evidence it was originally a tool of radicals such as Adams and Otis. By November 6, a committee was set up in New York to correspond with other colonies, and in December an alliance was formed between groups in New York and Connecticut. In January, there was established a correspondence link between Boston and Manhattan, and by March, Providence had initiated connections with New York, New Hampshire, and Newport, Rhode Island. Also, by March, Sons of Liberty organizations had been established in New Jersey, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, and a local group established in North Carolina was attracting interest in South Carolina and Georgia.

North American colonists from Savannah to Halifax resisted the Stamp Act in 1765, through legislative resolutions (starting in Province of Virginia), public demonstrations (starting in Province of Massachusetts), threats, and occasional violence. The success of this popular movement — the Stamp Act became unenforceable and was repealed in May 1766 — emboldened colonial Whigs to resist other new taxes with similar measures in the following years. In 1768, in response to the Townshend Act, the Sons of Liberty were able to impose a virtual blockade of British goods.

In 1766, the Sons of Liberty (a.k.a. "Liberty Boys") in the Province of New York erected a Liberty Pole in New York City to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. There was a long-running skirmish over these Liberty Poles with the British troops stationed there (the most notable engagement being the Battle of Golden Hill on 19 January 1770). As poles were alternately erected by Patriots and cut down by troops, violent outbreaks over it raged intermittently from 1766 until the Patriots gained control of New York City government in April 1775. The last liberty pole was cut down by occupying British troops on 28 October 1776.

The Sons of Liberty were responsible for the burning of HMS Gaspée 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 were widely accused of tarring and feathering.

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 which 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 this time period, it is said that John Adams and Sam Adams fought in jurisdiction due to the public offholding of public society as a system. In violation of the Treaty of Paris (1783) they called for the confiscation of the property of Loyalists.


In 1767, the Sons of Liberty adopted a flag called the rebellious stripes flag with nine uneven vertical stripes (five red and four white). It is supposed that nine represented the number of colonies that were to attend the Stamp Act Congress. A flag having thirteen horizontal red and white 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, in addition to yellow and white, were used.

Later societies

The name was also used during the American War. Early in 1864, the Copperhead organization, the Knights of the Golden Circle, was reorganized as the Order of the Sons of Liberty.

The Improved Order of Red Men, a patriotic fraternal secret society, claims to actually be the Sons of Liberty, having adopted the Native American motive after the Boston Tea Party.

One of the secret societies at the University of Virginia calls itself the Sons of Liberty. Some of its actions seem designed to echo those of the colonial Sons of Liberty, including pouring tea down the chimney of an individual of whom the society was publicly critical.

See also



  • Baker, Jean, Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983
  • Becker, Carl. "Growth of Revolutionary Parties and Methods in New York Province 1765-1774," American Historical Review 1901 7(1): 56-76. Issn: 0002-8762 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Champagne, Roger J. "Liberty Boys and Mechanics of New York City, 1764-1774," Labor History 1967 8(2): 115-135. Issn: 0023-656x Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Champagne, Roger J. "New York's Radicals and the Coming of Independence," Journal of American History 1964 51(1): 21-40. Issn: 0021-8723 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Irvin, Benjamin H. Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768-1776. New England Quarterly 2003 76(2): 197-238. Issn: 0028-4866 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Maier, Pauline. "From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776" (1991 - original 1972) ISBN 0-393-30825-1
  • Miller, John C., Origins of the American Revolution. (1943) online edition
  • Morais, Herbert M., "The Sons of Liberty in New York," in Richard B. Morris ed. The Era of the American Revolution (1939) pp 269-89 online edition
  • Schecter, Barnet, The Battle of New York, 2002, ISBN 0802713742
  • Smith, Page, A New Age Now Begins, 1976, ISBN 0070590974
  • Unger, Harlow, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patroit, 2000, ISBN 0785820264

External links

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