The Liberty Tree (1646–1775) was a famous elm tree that stood in Boston, near Boston Common, in the days before the American Revolution. The tree was a rallying point for the growing resistance to the rule of England over the American colonies. In the years that followed, almost every American town had its own Liberty Tree—a living symbol of popular support for individual liberty and resistance to tyranny.
In 1765 the British government imposed a Stamp Act on the American colonies. It required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. Because the Act applied to papers, newspapers, advertisements, and other publications and legal documents, it was viewed by the colonists as a means of censorship, or a "knowledge tax," on the rights of the colonists to write and read freely.
The summer of 1765 in Boston was marked by militant citizens demonstrating against the Stamp Act. On August 14, 1765, a group of men calling themselves the Sons of Liberty gathered in Boston under a large elm tree at the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street near Hanover Square to protest the hated Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty concluded their protest by hanging two tax collectors in effigy from the tree. From that day forward, the tree became known as the "Liberty Tree." The tree was often decorated with banners and lanterns. Assemblies were regularly held to express views and vent emotions. A flagstaff or pole was raised within the Tree's branches and when an ensign (usually yellow) was raised, the Sons of Liberty were to meet.
When the news of the Liberty Tree spread throughout the colonies, local patriots in each of the 13 colonies formed a Sons of Liberty group and identified a large tree to be used as a meeting place. In those times, holding an unauthorized assembly was dangerous business that carried threats of imprisonment or death. The casual appearance of a group chatting beneath a tree was much safer.
Other towns designated their own Liberty Trees as well. The Liberty Tree in Acton, Massachusetts, was an elm tree that lasted until about 1925. In 1915, knowing that the Liberty Tree was getting older, Acton students planted the Peace Tree, a Norway Maple that still stands today.
In the years leading up to the war, the British made the Liberty Tree an object of ridicule. British soldiers tarred and feathered a man named Ditson, and forced him to march in front of the tree. During the siege of Boston, about the last day of August 1775, a party of Loyalists led by Job Williams defiantly cut the tree down in an act of spite, knowing what it represented to the colonists, and used the tree for firewood. This act only further enraged the colonists. As resistance to the British grew, flags bearing a representation of the Liberty Tree were flown to symbolize the unwavering spirit of liberty. These flags were later a common sight during the battles of the American Revolution.
For many years the remnant of the tree was used as a reference point by local citizens, similar to the Boston Stone, and became known as the "Liberty Stump." Later the citizens in many of the colonies erected a Liberty pole in commemoration of the Liberty Tree.
In October 1966, the Boston Herald began running stories pointing out that the only commemoration of the Liberty Tree site was a grimy plaque on a building three stories above what is now the intersection of Washington and Boylston Streets. Reporter Ronald Kessler found that the plaque, a block east of Boston Common, was covered with bird droppings and obscured by a Kemp’s hamburger sign.
No one in the area had even noticed the site “where America was born.” Local guidebooks did not mention it.
Kessler persuaded then Massachusetts Gov. John A. Volpe to visit the site. A photo of Volpe examining the plaque from a fire engine ladder appeared on page one of the October 6, 1966 edition of the Boston Herald.
Volpe promised to preserve the site, and eventually the Boston Redevelopment Authority created a handsome bronze bas relief replica of the liberty tree and installed it in a small plaza on Boylston Street at Washington Street. The plaque bears the inscription "Sons of Liberty, 1766; Independence of the Country, 1776."
In the 1990s, some Acton school children again gathered to plant the Freedom Tree. This tree, a London Plane tree, was planted the same week that Apartheid ended in South Africa.