SONS OF LIBERTY (AMERICAN REVOLUTION)
SONS OF LIBERTY (AMERICAN REVOLUTION). "Sons of Liberty" has three separate meanings. The first is the organized groups of militant colonials who emerged during the Stamp Act crisis and disbanded when the act was repealed. More loosely the term means popular street leaders during the resistance to Britain. The New Yorker Alexander McDougall signed his 1769 broadside "To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York" with the pseudonym "A Son of Liberty" although he had taken no part in the Stamp Act resistance. Even more loosely the term recalls its generic use for colonials resisting the STAMP ACT during debates in the House of Commons by the procolonial Isaac Barre.
The issue the organized Sons of Liberty raised and resolved was a combination of general outrage against the Stamp Act and debate about rendering the act null rather than simply protesting. The earliest group was the Loyal Nine in Boston, who coalesced around Samuel Adams. Unlike Adams, who was a Harvard graduate and a gentleman, the Loyal Nine were for the most part prosperous artisans and small traders. They were literate and politically sophisticated but not members of the town elite.
On 14 August 1765 these men staged a public drama beneath the Liberty Tree on Boston Neck, the strip of land that connected town to mainland. Their goal was to show people crossing the Neck how the act would impact their own day-to-day lives. The drama closed when a crowd assembled under the leadership of Ebenezer Macintosh, a shoemaker who was not one of the Loyal Nine. Reenacting and transforming the rituals of a traditional Pope's Day riot, the crowd attacked property belonging to the stamp distributor Andrew Oliver. Oliver resigned his post. Facing similar pressure, distributors from New Hampshire to South Carolina also resigned. Except in Georgia, the act never took force.
New York City's Sons of Liberty operated differently. The Boston group disavowed the destruction of the house of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson on 26 August 1765. The New Yorkers, however, disavowed nothing during the rioting in the city through October 1765 to May 1766, including the sacking of a newly opened theater. They also negotiated a mutual-assistance pact with Sons of Liberty in Connecticut. The group in Albany, New York, wrote a formal constitution. Philadelphia had no organized group. Artisans played large parts in Baltimore and Charles Town, but Samuel Adams was not the only outright gentleman who became involved.
The great achievement of the organized Sons of Liberty was threefold. First, they turned debate about the Stamp Act into outright resistance. Second, they brought many outsiders into street politics, giving them both direction and discipline. Third, by their own militant insistence on a political voice and by the openness of some of them to domestic questions, they helped broaden the agenda of the emerging Revolution from breaking the link with Britain to questioning what kind of place America ought to be.
Hoerder, Dirk. Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765– 1780. New York: Academic Press, 1977.
Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765– 1776. New York: Knopf, 1972.
———. The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York: Knopf, 1980.
Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
See also Revolution, American: Political History; Stamp Act Congress .