Sons of Liberty
LeadersSee below
MotivesBefore 1766:
Opposition to the Stamp Act
After 1766:
Independence of the United Colonies from Great Britain
Active regionsMassachusetts Bay
Rhode Island
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
IdeologyInitial phase:
Rights of Englishmen
"No taxation without representation"
Later phase:
Major actionsPublic demonstrations, direct action, destruction of Crown goods and property, boycotts, tar and feathering, pamphleteering
Notable attacksGaspee Affair, Boston Tea Party, attack on John Malcolm
Allies Patriot revolutionaries
Opponents Parliament of Great Britain
Royal Colonial Governments
Tories and other Crown Loyalists
A 1765 handbill, announcing an upcoming "Sons of Liberty" public event.

The Sons of Liberty was a loosely organized, clandestine, sometimes violent, political organization active in the Thirteen American Colonies founded to advance the rights of the colonists and to fight taxation by the British government. It played a major role in most colonies in battling the Stamp Act in 1765[1] and throughout the entire period of the American Revolution. Historian David C. Rapoport called the activities of the Sons of Liberty "mob terror."[2]

In popular thought, 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.[3] The well-known label allowed organizers to make or create anonymous summons to a Liberty Tree, "Liberty Pole", or other public meeting-place. Furthermore, a unifying name helped to promote inter-Colonial efforts against Parliament and the Crown's actions. Their motto became "No taxation without representation."[4]


The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British anti-American propaganda cartoon, referring to the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also are shown pouring "Tea" down Malcolm's throat; note the noose hanging on the Liberty Tree and the Stamp Act posted upside-down

In 1765, the British government needed money to afford the 10,000 officers and soldiers living in the colonies, and intended that the colonists living there should contribute.[5] The British passed a series of taxes aimed at the colonists, and many of the colonists refused to pay certain taxes; they argued that they should not be held accountable for taxes which were decided upon without any form of their consent through a representative. This became commonly known as "No Taxation without Representation." Parliament insisted on its right to rule the colonies despite the fact that the colonists had no representative in Parliament.[6] The most incendiary tax was the Stamp Act of 1765, which caused a firestorm of opposition through legislative resolutions (starting in the colony of Virginia), public demonstrations,[7] threats, and occasional hurtful losses.[8]

The name is presumed to have been inspired by the phrase's use in a pro-American, anti-taxation speech in the House of Commons on February 6, 1765, by Irish MP Isaac Barré.[9][10] A precursor of the Sons of Liberty in Boston was the Loyal Nine, which burned effigies of Stamp Act commissioner Andrew Oliver in Boston on August 14, 1765. When he did not resign, the group escalated to burning down his office building. Even after he resigned, they almost destroyed the whole house of his close associate Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. It is believed that the Sons of Liberty did this to excite the lower classes and get them actively involved in rebelling against the authorities. Their actions made many of the stamp distributors resign in fear.

The organization spread after independent starts in several different colonies under various names.[11] The name Sons of Liberty was used beginning in November in New York and Connecticut. By November 6, a committee was set up in New York City to correspond with other colonies, and by November 11 a meeting in Windham, Connecticut laid out orgational plans. In December an alliance was formed between groups in New York and Connecticut, and the name of Sons of Libery was first used in Boston. January bore witness to a correspondence link between Boston and New York City, and by March, Providence, Rhode Island had initiated connections with New York, New Hampshire, and Newport, Rhode Island. March also marked the emergence of Sons of Liberty organizations in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia.

To celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, the Sons of Liberty in Dedham, Massachusetts, erected the Pillar of Liberty.[12]

The Sons of Liberty popularized the use of tar and feathering to punish and humiliate offending government officials starting in 1767. This method was also used against British Loyalists during the American Revolution. This punishment had long been used by sailors to punish their mates.[13]

On August 14, 1769, the Boston Sons of Liberty held a public rally in celebration of the 4th Anniversary of their founding. At 11 in the morning they gathered at the Liberty Tree in Boston where they gave speeches and made toasts; they then paraded to the Liberty Tree Tavern in nearby Dorchester, where they held a celebratory dinner of 300 members of the organization in a tent set up next to the tavern, where "Music played, and at proper Intervals Cannon were fired. [...] About Five o'Clock the Company left [the tavern] in a Procession that extended near a Mile and a half, and before Dark entered the City, went round the State House and retired each to his own House."[14]

At this time in the history of their organization they still considered themselves to be loyal subjects of the monarchy of Great Britain; when it came time at both events to give a round of toasts, the first toasts were to "The King, the Queen and the Royal Family";[14] only much later during the course of the Revolution did they begin to stridently oppose giving any support to the monarchy.

The Bostonian branch of the Sons of Liberty were responsible for organizing and executing the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773 in response to the Tea Act.

Early in the American Revolution, the former Sons of Liberty generally joined more formal groups, such as the Committee of Safety.

New York

"The association of the Sons of Liberty was organized in 1765, soon after the passage of the Stamp Act, and extended throughout the colonies, from Massachusetts to South Carolina. It appears that New York was the central post from which communications were dispatched, to and from the east and to the south as far as Maryland..."[15]

While the exact name "Sons of Liberty" may not have been taken up as their official moniker by the leaders of the New York opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765 - they were popularly known there around that time as "The Liberty Boys" - it appears that they were known to other "Sons of Liberty" organizations in other states by that name not long after that time. There is a letter written by the "Sons of Liberty" in Baltimore, Maryland, "to the Sons of Liberty in New York", dated 6 March 1766 in which the Baltimore "Sons" thanked their New York brethren for having forced Zacharias Hood, who had been appointed stamp-master for Maryland, into resigning his commission. Hood had arrived in New York on a ship from London, and as soon as his mission became known to The Liberty Boys of New York, they arranged for a meeting with him at which they reasoned with him in their own inimitable way and thus secured his "resignation."[16]

A list of New York members of the Sons of Liberty compiled by the Sons in Maryland, written on 1 March 1766, lists the following correspondents in the colony of New York: "New York [city] — John Lamb, Isaac Sears, William Wiley, Edward Laight, Thomas Robinson, Flores Bancker, Charles Nicoll, Joseph Allicoke, and Gershom Mott. Jer. Van Rensselaer, Maynard Roseboom, Rob. Henry, and Thos. Young, Albany. John S. Hobart, Gilbert Potter, Thomas Brush, Cornelius Conklin, and Nathaniel Williams, Huntington, Long Island. George Townsend, Barack Sneething, Benjamin Townsend, George Weeks, Michael Weeks, and Rowland Chambers, Oyster Bay, Long Island."[17]

In December 1773, a new group calling itself 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 that they were opposed 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."[18]

After the end of the American Revolutionary War, Isaac Sears, Marinus Willet, and John Lamb revived in New York City the Sons of Liberty. In March 1784, they rallied an enormous crowd that 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 violation of the Treaty of Paris (1783), they called for the confiscation of the property of Loyalists.[19] Alexander Hamilton defended the Loyalists, citing the supremacy of the treaty.


An original flag flown from the Liberty Tree is in the collection of Revolutionary Spaces in Boston at the Old State House. The flag is wool with nine vertical stripes, four white and five red. The owner of the flag post-Revolution, Samuel "Rat-Trap" Adams, claimed that the flag was used by the Sons of Liberty, although there is no contemporary documentation of a non-British striped flag used by the Sons of Liberty. A flag having 13 horizontal red and white stripes was used by the Continental Navy and by American merchant ships during the war, although the two styles of flag do not appear to be related.[20][21]

Famous Sons of Liberty

1st row: Samuel AdamsBenedict ArnoldJohn HancockPatrick HenryJames Otis, Jr. 2nd row: Paul RevereJames SwanAlexander McDougallBenjamin RushCharles Thomson 3rd row: Joseph WarrenMarinus WillettOliver WolcottChristopher GadsdenHaym Salomon
Not pictured: Hercules Mulligan, Thomas Melvill, Isaac Sears


New York


Later societies

At various times, small secret organizations took the name "Sons of Liberty". They generally left very few records. In the early 19th century, there was an organization in Bennington, Vermont, named the Sons of Liberty, that included local notables such as military officer Martin Scott and Hiram Harwood.[31]

The Improved Order of Red Men, established in 1834, claimed to be descended from the original Sons of Liberty, noting that the Sons participated in the Boston Tea Party dressed as their idea of "Indians".

The name was also used during the American Civil War.[32] The Copperhead group, the Knights of the Golden Circle, reorganized in 1863 as the "Order of American Knights". In 1864, it became the Order of the Sons of Liberty, with the Ohio politician Clement L. Vallandigham, most prominent of the Copperheads, as its supreme commander. In most areas, only a minority of its membership was radical enough to discourage enlistments, resist the draft, and shield deserters. The group held numerous peace meetings. A few agitators, some of them encouraged by Southern money, talked of a revolt in the Old Northwest, with the goal of ending the war.[33] In 1864, both the KGC and the Order of the Sons of Liberty were prosecuted for treason by federal authorities, especially in Indiana.[34]

In 1948, a radical wing of the Zionist movement, calling itself the "Sons of Liberty", launched a boycott of British films in the U.S., in response to British policies in Palestine.[35]

See also



  1. ^ John Phillips Resch, ed., culture, and the homefront (MacMillan Reference Library, 2005) 1: 174–75
  2. ^ Rapoport, David C. (2008). "Before the Bombs There Were the Mobs: American Experiences with Terror". Terrorism and Political Violence. 20 (2): 168. doi:10.1080/09546550701856045.
  3. ^ Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies (2007) 1:688
  4. ^ Frank Lambert (2005). James Habersham: loyalty, politics, and commerce in colonial Georgia. U. of Georgia Press. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-8203-2539-2.
  5. ^ John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston, 1943) p. 74.
  6. ^ John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston, 1943)
  7. ^ Such as by the local judges and Frederick, Maryland. See Thomas John Chew Williams (1979). History of Frederick County, Maryland. Genealogical Publishing Co. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0806379739.
  8. ^ Miller, Origins of the American Revolution pp. 121, 129–130
  9. ^ Shain, Barry Alan (2014-06-10). The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context: American State Papers, Petitions, Proclamations, and Letters of the Delegates to the First National Congresses. Yale University Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-300-15874-8.
  10. ^ Flexner, Stuart Berg; Soukhanov, Anne H. (1997). Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley. Oxford University Press. p. 316. ISBN 978-0-19-510692-3.
  11. ^ Maier, Pauline (1991). From Resistance To Revolution: Colonial Radicals & The Development Of American Opposition To Britain. United Kingdom: WW Norton. pp. 78-93. ISBN 9780393308259.
  12. ^ Dedham Historical Society (2001). Images of America: Dedham. Arcadia Publishing. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-7385-0944-0. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
  13. ^ Benjamin H. Irvin, "Tar, feathers, and the enemies of American liberties, 1768–1776." New England Quarterly (2003): 197–238. in JSTOR
  14. ^ a b "Untitled news item, column 1". The Boston Evening-Post. Massachusetts Historical Society. 21 August 1769. Retrieved 22 September 2022.
  15. ^ Leake, Isaac (1850). Memoir of the life and times of General John Lamb. Internet Archive: J. Munsell. p. 2 et seq. OCLC 1048816315.
  16. ^ Dawson, Henry (3 May 1859). The Sons of Liberty in New York. Internet Archive: New York State Historical Society. p. 72 et. seq. OCLC 1157513559.
  17. ^ Leake, Isaac (1850). Memoir of the life and times of General John Lamb. Internet Archive: J. Munsell. p. 4. OCLC 1048816315.
  18. ^ T. H. Breen (2004). The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. Oxford UP. p. 446. ISBN 978-0199840113.
  19. ^ Schecter, p. 382
  20. ^ "Not That Samuel Adams". 13 August 2014. Retrieved 5 May 2023.
  21. ^ Ansoff, Peter; vexillologie, North American Vexillological Association / Association nord-américaine de (1 July 2004). "The First Navy Jack". Raven: A Journal of Vexillology. 11: 1–60. doi:10.5840/raven2004111. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  22. ^ Ira Stoll (2008). Samuel Adams: A Life. Free Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-1416594567.
  23. ^ David H. Fischer (1995). Paul Revere's ride. Oxford University Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0195098310.
  24. ^ Paul Della Valle (2009). Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 57. ISBN 978-0762757954.
  25. ^ Donald A. Grinde Jr, "Joseph Allicocke: African-American Leader of the Sons of Liberty." Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 14#.2 (1990): 61–69.
  26. ^ Daniel Elbridge Wager (1891). Col. Marinus Willett, the Hero of Mohawk Valley. Society. p. 10.
  27. ^ Dave R. Plamer (2010). George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots. Regnery Publishing. p. 3. ISBN 978-1596981645.
  28. ^
  29. ^ Louis Bellet Plamer (1976). Prominent Virginia Families. Genealogical Publishing Com. ISBN 978-0806307220.
  30. ^ Chris Alexander (2010). Two Truths Two Justices. Xulon Press. p. 146. ISBN 978-1612154527.
  31. ^ Shalhope, Robert (2003). A Tale of New England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 92–96. ISBN 0-8018-7127-1.
  32. ^ Baker, p. 341
  33. ^ Hesseline, William B. (1948) Lincoln and the War Governors. p.312. New York: Knopf. OCLC 445066
  34. ^ Keehn, David C. (2013). Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press. p. 173. ISBN 978-0807150047.
  35. ^ Kerry Segrave (2004). Foreign Films in America: A History. McFarland. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-7864-8162-0.

Further reading

18th century Sons
  • Becker, Carl (1901), "Growth of Revolutionary Parties and Methods in New York Province 1765–1774", American Historical Review, 7 (1): 56–76, doi:10.2307/1832532, ISSN 0002-8762, JSTOR 1832532
  • Carson, Clayborne, Jake Miller, and James Miller. "Sons of Liberty." in Civil Disobedience: An Encyclopedic History of Dissidence in the United States (2015): 276+
  • Champagne, Roger J. (1967), "Liberty Boys and Mechanics of New York City, 1764–1774", Labor History, 8 (2): 115–135, doi:10.1080/00236566708584011, ISSN 0023-656X
  • Champagne, Roger J. (1964), "New York's Radicals and the Coming of Independence", Journal of American History, 51 (1): 21–40, doi:10.2307/1917932, ISSN 0021-8723, JSTOR 1917932
  • Dawson, Henry Barton. The Sons of Liberty in New York (1859) 118 pages; online edition
  • Foner, Philip Sheldon. Labor and the American Revolution (1976) Westport, CN: Greenwood. 258 pages
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles (2006), Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos The Reshaped America, New York: Public Affairs, ISBN 1-58648-355-2
  • Irvin, Benjamin H. (2003), "Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768–1776", New England Quarterly, 76 (2): 197–238, doi:10.2307/1559903, ISSN 0028-4866, JSTOR 1559903
  • Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party (1964).
  • Maier, Pauline (1972), From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776, New York: W.W. Norton
  • Maier, Pauline. "Reason and Revolution: The Radicalism of Dr. Thomas Young," American Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 2, (Summer 1976), pp. 229–249 in JSTOR
  • Middlekauff, Robert (2005), The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789, Oxford University Press, ISBN 019531588X
  • Miller, John C. (1943), Origins of the American Revolution, Boston: Little, Brown and Company
  • Morais, Herbert M. (1939), "The Sons of Liberty in New York", in Morris, Richard B. (ed.), The Era of the American Revolution, pp. 269–289, a Marxist interpretation
  • Nash, Gary B. (2005), The Unknown Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, London: Viking, ISBN 0-670-03420-7
  • Schecter, Barnet (2002), The Battle of New York, New York: Walker, ISBN 0-8027-1374-2
  • Unger, Harlow (2000), John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot, Edison, NJ: Castle Books, ISBN 0-7858-2026-4
  • Walsh, Richard. Charleston's Sons of Liberty: A Study of the Artisans, 1763–1789 (1968)
  • Warner, William B. Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2013)
Later groups