Linda Moss Mines / January 25, 2023

Those Sons of Liberty

Their ideas regarding the rights of English citizens — the rights of the colonists — went beyond just taxation.

As we count down toward the opening volleys of the American Revolution, the year 1773 looms large, for it foreshadows future events that will lead to the establishment of this republic.

All across the nation, America250 Committees — including the one I coordinate here in Tennessee — are planning commemorative events to aid Americans in preparing for the momentous anniversary just ahead. As we look forward to the 250th celebrations, we must look back to the Sons of Liberty and others who led the way, even if they were often the somewhat “invisible” element in the fight for the colonists’ rights to a voice in governance.

Who were the Sons of Liberty?

The Sons of Liberty, guided by the highly vocal Samuel Adams, were comprised of merchants, tradesmen, and professionals who were originally founded to protest taxation without representation, but their ideas regarding the rights of English citizens — the rights of the colonists — went beyond just taxation. While we remember them for their defiance against the Tea Act in 1773 (yes, that important year!), they had formed earlier to engage in discourse with the royal representatives in the colonies but had quickly morphed into civil disobedience, eventually becoming somewhat radical in their operations.

One of their earliest actions designed to push colonial leaders toward confrontation with the crown occurred during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765. Historical records verify that the Sons sent a letter to Andrew Oliver, a new tax collector, suggesting that he meet with a group of Boston merchants and skilled tradesmen at noon the next day at the “Liberty Tree” to resign his post. The lightly veiled message suggested that Oliver “should comply.” He did.

From Boston and New York, the Sons of Liberty chapters spread across the colonies. In some communities, the leaders operated in the shadows; in others, the leaders were well known. Regardless of their operational tactics, they were united in their desire to fight for their rights, even if they realized by the late 1760s that civil disobedience might need to become “unlawful” acts of violence.

Where did the name Sons of Liberty originate? Historians are not certain, but they often point to a famous speech given in the English Parliament by Isaac Barre, an Irish member who championed Home Rule for Ireland and understood the colonists’ frustrations and anger at their own lack of self-determination. In warning the members of Parliament that their actions toward the English colonies in North America were dangerous, he proclaimed that Parliament had “caused the blood of these sons of liberty to recoil.”

Recoil? In reality, their blood was beginning to boil.

As we examine the events that led to the American Revolution, it is impossible to ignore the Sons of Liberty. From burning effigies of royal leaders to breaking into and looting their homes — from smashing windows and smearing excrement on the outer walls of shop owners who wavered in their commitment to boycotting English goods to tarring and feathering the “loyalists” — the Sons of Liberty demonstrated their understanding that political negotiation alone would not prove effective. Their most famous action occurred in 1773 in Boston and, 250 years later, most adults and children have a general knowledge of the Boston Tea Party, a humorous name for a serious political action.

Oral tradition and some written records affirm that the Boston Tea Party was led by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty but organized by John Hancock. Hancock and Adams had led the earlier boycott against the British East India Company’s tea and were most likely smuggling in Dutch tea, causing the British company to suffer extreme losses. In 1773, the British East India Company lowered its prices, with parliamentary approval, but the taxes still made the smuggled tea cheaper.

When the British ships sailed into Boston Harbor, the Sons of Liberty saw that moment as a pivotal point in their campaign for “rights.” While they probably would have preferred that the tea simply be returned, there were local merchants who opposed that action. Once the tea was unloaded, they feared there were citizens who would purchase it, and those purchases would be duplicated in New York City, Charleston, and Philadelphia. The Boston Sons of Liberty knew they had to move quickly.

On the evening of December 16, 1773, a large group of men, disguised as Native Americans, boarded the ships and, within a few hours, the contents of 342 chests — 90,000 pounds of tea — were floating in the harbor. No individuals were hurt and the ships themselves were not damaged; legend says that the participants swept the decks before departing into the night.

Their defiance — a true grassroots uprising in action — moved the colonies closer to a debate about independence. And while the identities of the participants were not confirmed at the time, local reports described them as men under the age of 40, with many “appearing to be teenagers.”

Political debates had been replaced by subversive action opposed to oppressive laws and governance. Samuel Adams and John Hancock had just begun…

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