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Revolutionary War
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Who Were the Sons of Liberty?

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The Sons of Liberty was a secret underground society created due to the social and political fallout of the French and Indian War. The war, which took place throughout the world, was just one part of a larger conflict called the Seven Years War, a war that many historians consider to be “The First World War.” The French and Indian War, coupled with the fighting throughout the globe, nearly pushed the British Empire to the brink of financial collapse due to the increased spending needed to fight an international war. As a result, the British increased taxation among the colonies and stationed soldiers of the Crown within these colonies to guard the Empire’s new territorial gains. The British Empire needed money and goods for their empire, and they turned to the colonies for both. However, the Sons of Liberty made it their goal that the Empire received neither.

The British Parliament rationalized that the fighting in North America against the French was to protect the colonists and their interests, and thus, they should pay their share in taxes to help pay off their war-debt alongside stationing British soldiers within the new territorial gains. So, the solution was to forcefully quarter soldiers with American colonists via the Quartering Act. This quartering also increased the required funds needed in order to sustain the lives of thousands of British soldiers, who also had to be fed, out of pocket, by the colonists. The first of many taxes forced upon the American people was the Sugar Act, which taxed the transport and sale of raw sugar, molasses, and rum throughout the colonies. Smuggling, however, helped to circumvent this tax, but only partly

Additionally, the increased taxation of the colonies combined with the financial hardships of the colonists due to the forced quartering of British soldiers, and the numerous taxes finally boiled over once the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The Act required an additional tax for a stamp on all paper documents or products; this included items such as deeds and other legal documents, to newspapers, and even playing cards. Because the British, quite literally, found a way to tax almost every aspect of colonial life, the Sons of Liberty instigated riots throughout Boston, Massachusetts.

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Stark, James Henry. Bostonians Reading the Stamp Act. 1882. From “Stranger's Illustrated Guide to Boston and Its Suburbs”

 

Once the Stamp Act had passed, a secret group called the Loyal Nine, the precursor to the Sons of Liberty, gathered crowds around the famous Liberty Tree in Boston. The crowd, angered by the Stamp Act and provoked by the encouragement of the Loyal Nine, began rioting throughout the streets of Boston. These riots targeted the taxable goods and the tax collectors, which put many colonial officials at risk of being tarred and feathered or even killed. The rioters also destroyed an immeasurable amount of property. In one case, Boston rioters raided the home of the Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and stole an estimated £250,000 worth of his possessions. The Loyal Nine, having sparked resistance, turned to publishing patriotic ideas in the Boston Gazette. Eventually, the Loyal Nine began signing their political dissent as ‘The Sons of Liberty’ thus establishing a much larger resistance group. What was originally organized in Boston by a local brewer turned politician, Samuel Adams, quickly snowballed into a larger network of resistance to the British Crown. With the coordination of various Sons of Liberty chapters, the Stamp Act was repealed within one year of it being enacted. However, this victory came at a price. The British Parliament passed the Declaratory Act when they repealed the Stamp Act. The Declaratory Act was more of a formal threat than an actual piece of legislation, as the Act stated that the British King and Parliament have the power to enact any and all legislation onto the colonies. This Act only served to reinforce the Sons of Liberty’s idea of “No Taxation Without Representation,” as written by a fellow member, James Otis Jr.

Despite the revolutionary patriotic sentiments of the colonies, Britain was still in debt and needed money. The British Parliament, in desperation, passed the Townshend Acts, which increased taxes and tariffs on numerous products from Britain like lead, paint, paper, ink, porcelain, glass, and tea. Additionally, the Act functioned as a general search warrant, which allowed British soldiers to enter any colonist’s home to find and take smuggled goods. As the Sons of Liberty took to smuggling in cheaper goods to avoid British taxes. Eventually, Sons of Liberty member and tea smuggler John Hancock was captured and put on trial by the British. Hancock turned to fellow Sons of Liberty member, cousin of Samuel Adams, and prominent attorney, John Adams. Adams successfully defended Hancock, but smuggling had increasingly become riskier. So, under the direction of the Sons of Liberty, the colonists organized a boycott of all British goods being sold in the colonies. Under Samuel Adams and other members of the Sons of Liberty, the boycott was enforced throughout Boston and the surrounding Massachusetts area. Anyone who dared to sell British goods risked their store being vandalized or worse. Even their physical safety was at risk as the Sons of Liberty turned to violence to threaten shopkeepers that did not comply with the boycott. As a result of the unrest in Boston, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, the British Commander of North America, was sent to Boston to control the patriots and the Sons of Liberty. However, the British mission of pacification and peacekeeping failed on the night of March 5th, 1770 when eight British soldiers guarding the Customs House in Boston opened fire upon a mob of angry colonists. When the smoke cleared, five colonists were dead, and another six wounded. No one, not even the British soldiers, could recall how the shooting started and if there was even an order given. However, a local Boston silversmith, engraver, and Sons of Liberty member Paul Revere used this massacre as propaganda to fuel patriotic feelings and a general anti-British sentiment throughout the colonies. Soon, news spread throughout the colonies about the massacre with the accompanying engraving depicting the ‘complete brutality’ and ‘barbarism’ of the British Army.

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Revere, Paul. The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre. 1770. From the Library of Congress.

 

Due to the increasing success of the Sons of Liberty, the British Parliament eased many of the duties in the colonies. However, the Parliament continued the high tax on tea, as the British Crown desperately needed money. Even worse, the British East India Company was close to bankruptcy. The British East India Company, essentially an extension of the British government, was an imperial trade company that transported tea from Asia for consumption in western markets. However, rather than have a private civilian owner of the East India Company, much like a CEO, the company was instead to be owned by the British Parliament and King. Via the Tea Act, the British Government was forcing the colonists to pay extremely high taxes on British tea, while the British tea importers paid no taxes or import duties. These actions created a monopoly for the British East India Company in the colonial tea market, undercutting local merchants and other foreign tea importers.  

In 1773, the refusal to pay for British tea on behalf of the colonists fell upon deaf ears, and the East India Company’s trading ships were to enter Boston Harbor to sell the tea. However, rather than purchase the tea, on the night of December 16th, 1773 the Sons of Liberty boarded the trade ships docked in Griffin’s Wharf and threw the shipments of tea overboard in an event known as the Boston Tea Party. Members of the Sons of Liberty allied with local patriot tea merchants, smugglers of Dutch tea, and any patriot infuriated by the taxation without representation to wear traditional Native American garments to signify that these colonials identify more with their American roots rather than their status as British subjects. After three hours, over 342 chests of tea were heaved into the harbor. The destruction of the tea imports cost the British Empire, valued today at over $1,700,000.

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Currier, Nathaniel. The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor. 1846.

 

In retaliation, the British Government passed the Intolerable Acts, which were called the Coercive Acts in the colonies. These Acts covered four major points. The Act shut down Boston Harbor, suspended trials by jury, prohibited elections and the meeting of the state assembly, and aggressively forced the quartering of British soldiers in private buildings and homes. These Acts punished the Boston Sons of Liberty and the Massachusetts colony, but also inspired increasingly revolutionary ideals. The resistance encouraged other Sons of Liberty chapters to rebel in their own ways. For example, the Maryland chapter of the Sons of Liberty set the trade ship the ‘Peggy Stewart’ on fire because it was importing British tea.

Eventually, the patriotic resistance to British rule became too much to handle and revolution and war was inevitable. When lawmakers of Virginia gathered in 1775 to discuss negotiations with the British King, Sons of Liberty member, Patrick Henry exclaimed to the Second Virginia Convention “Give me liberty or give me death!”. Thus, cementing the American stance for independence from British rule and initiating the American commitment to the Revolutionary War.