Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Sons of Liberty
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: Reprinted by permission from the SAR Magazine, Fall 2002
"Revolutions are not made, they come... It comes out of the past. Its foundations are laid far back". (1) This was very much the case in the American Revolution. The Sons of Liberty were one of the primary agitators of the revolt that eventually resulted in our country's independence.
A small group of men -- supported mostly by artisans, mechanics and laborers -- mobilized the colonial discontent with England's rule. Without their efforts, it is highly doubtful that the Revolution would ever have happened. The Sons used every conceivable method available to them to achieve their goal of independence. These methods included galvanizing the masses into action. They organized demonstrations, forced officials of the Crown to resign, circulated petitions, published newspaper articles and distributed handbills - they did not hesitate to employ force when necessary.
The Sons of Liberty made their first appearance in late 1767. Although their origins are obscure, as the Sons were a secret organization, they were formed in some of the colonies in opposition to the infamous Stamp Act. Ten years earlier, in 1755, some "True Sons of Righteous Liberty" formed a political club in Connecticut to defend religious and personal freedom. It is probable that this group was revived as the Connecticut Sons of Liberty. A group of New Yorkers organized a group which called themselves the "Whig Club" in 1752. This club was formed for the same reasons as the Connecticut group and held weekly meetings. Each of these meetings was opened with a toast to "the immortal memory" of Oliver Cromwell, leader of the rebellious faction during the English Civil War. Some of the Whig Club members were later connected with the New York Liberty Boys. (2)
STAMP ACT SPURS FORMATION OF SONS
When the Stamp Act was imposed on March 22nd, 1765, the colonists were outraged. The first Sons of Liberty appeared in Eastern Connecticut and quickly spread to most of the other colonies. These groups functioned as separate entities, a defect that was to hamper their collective efforts. The New York Sons attempted to resolve the problem and proposed "a Congress of the Sons of Liberty" in order to establish a uniform society. This effort failed, but Committees of Correspondence were created, loosely connecting all the colonies.(3)
The New York Society of the Sons played a very important role in these efforts. New York was the crossroads of the colonies and was fortunate enough to have exceptional leadership. They were typical of the Sons; thus, concentrating on their activities provides insight into the activities of all the societies.
On October 31 st, 1765 a large meeting was held in New York City. Five of the leading members - John Lamb, Gershom Mott, Isaac Sears, Thomas Robinson, and William Wiley - were appointed a Committee of Correspondence. The support of the Sons was so great that by early 1766 it was so strong that they abandoned some of their secrecy and made public their intentions. They even went so far as to publish in the newspapers the time, place and agendas of their meetings! This openness encouraged other towns and cities to establish their own Sons. A resolution was published stating: "Privileges of every free born Englishman of being taxed by none, but by representatives of his own choosing, of being tried by none, but his fellows in a jury".(4)
A proposal to create one Society of the Sons was sent to all of the Sons organizations. According to John Lamb's papers, the purpose was "coordinate the activities of those military establishments connected with the Sons." This statement makes it clear that they were considering armed insurrection, nine years before Lexington and Concord! In an effort to determine who were the members of the Sons of Liberty at the time, we reviewed letters, biographical sketches and local histories. Eighteen names were uncovered: Joseph Allicoke, Abraham Brasher, Egbert Benson, John Hobart, Edward Laight, John Lame, Leonard Lispenard, Francis Lewis, William Livingston, Alexander McDougall, Charles Nicoll, Daniel Phoenix, John M. Scott, Isaac Sears, John Thurman, Jr., Marinus Willett, Thomas Young and Jacobus Van landt. The occupations of these men have been identified: eleven were merchants, four were lawyers, one a physician, one a wealthy landowner and one a writer.
LANDING OF STAMPS OPPOSED
The Sons mustered some 2,000 New Yorkers to prevent the landing of the hated Stamps. This demonstration frightened the British into waiting until the middle of the night, after the demonstrators had gone home, to bring in the Stamps. The Sons placed placards all over the city stating: "First man that either distributes or makes use of Stamped Paper... to take care of his House, Person and Effects." When the Sons discovered that the Stamps had been landed, a huge crowd marched on Fort George, where the Stamps were stored. A letter was sent to Lt. Governor Cadwallader Colden warning him "Not to fire on the town, unless you want to die a martyr to your own villainy and will be hanged...as a memento to all wicked governors."
The Sons then informed the Fort's Commander, Major Thomas James, they would tear down his house.(5) He refused - and they did! The Sons also carried off the Colors of the Royal Regiment. Further demands were made and Governor Colden turned over the Stamps to forty armed militiamen. Thirty-five of them voted to burn the Stamps and did so.
The next step the Sons took was to march on the men appointed as Stamp Agents. The first was James McEvers, who thought it prudent to resign. Another, Zachariah Hood, who the Maryland Sons of Liberty forced to flee, had been given refuge by Lt. Governor Colden, also resigned.
A few weeks later, John Lamb went to Philadelphia and with assistance of the "Heart and Hand Fire Company" forced the resignation of John Hughes, the last Stamp Agent in America.
The Sons then addressed other grievances. They petitioned the State Assembly to "take away as much money from the Lt. Governor's [Colden] salary to repair the Fort". (This was Fort George at the tip of Manhattan, which the Sons knew could be needed in case they needed to defend New York City). They also demanded the repeal of the "Gunning Law", thereby making it legal to form strong, trained militia. British Captain James Montresor noted in his diary: "The Sons of Liberty, as they term themselves, were openly defying powers, office and all authority". He concluded: that "the Sons of Liberty were the sole rulers of New York".
SONS BOARD BRITISH SHIP
A month later, March, 1766, the indefatigable Isaac Sears and Joseph Allicoke let a Committee of the Sons and boarded a British Man-O-War in New York Harbor and demanded that the Captain surrender a British officer who had made derogatory remarks about the colonists. General Thomas Gage, the Commander-inChief of all British forces in North America, interceded on behalf of the officer, and threatened to send additional troops to New York; the Sons prepared for a fight! Colonel Israel Putnam (a prominent member of the Connecticut Sons of Liberty) sent word that he was coming to the aid of the New York Sons of Liberty with 10,000 armed men from Connecticut. A confrontation was avoided when word (although false) arrived that the Stamp Act had been repealed.
The successes achieved by the Sons of Liberty encouraged others to address their grievances in similar ways. A group of settlers from the Philips estate refused to allow themselves to be evicted, and urged all tenants to unite and force the issue. The tenants on the Van Cortlandt estates refused to pay their rents unless the insecurity of tenure was resolved. The movement spread, but was eventually put down. It is unfortunate that the Sons of Liberty did not join forces with this movement which would have united the urban population with that of the rural farmers.
In August of 1766 the Liberty Pole erected by the Sons to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act was cut down by some British soldier. The Sons immediately called a town meeting and some two to three thousand people attended. In an attempt to break up the meeting some soldiers fired on the crowd, wounding several people. Had the New York Sons had a Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, it certainly would have become the "New York Massacre". The Sons retaliated and British soldiers were no longer allowed to patrol the streets. A second Liberty Pole was then erected.
Captain Montresor recorded in his diary on July 16th, 1767, that the Sons of Liberty were no longer holding their regular meetings. The Son's continued to organize demonstrations and distribute handbills. The fiery Sears and Lamb disappeared from public view, but were replaced by equally patriotic Alexander McDougall and Marinus Willett.
SONS IRRITATE ROYAL GOVERNOR
The continued agitation by the Sons of Liberty irritated the Royal Governor of New York to no end. In December of 1767, Royal Governor Sir Henry Moore issued a proclamation against the distribution of "sundry seditious papers". He cited one written by "Pro Patria" as an example. Pro Patria responded with another handbill reminding his fellow New Yorkers of the "glorious stand for liberty". As the debate raged, Moore offered a reward of fifty pounds to any citizen that would identify Pro Patria. No one dared come forth and the bounty was never paid.
Moore took legal action against some of the leaders of the Sons, arresting and imprisoning several. But all were acquitted in the courts, for the most part by intimidation by the Sons.
In January 1770, three months before the famous "Boston Massacre", British troops again cut down the Liberty Pole. They then cut it up and placed the pieces in front of the Sons of Liberty's headquarters. The result was the "Battle of Golden Hill". One New Yorker was killed and several others were wounded in an open clash with the soldiers. The Sons reacted as expected. A resolution was passed forbidding the citizenry to hire off-duty soldiers as laborers. This had been a common practice, with the soldiers earning much needed spending money. The Sons also 'convinced' the authorities to allow them to erect yet another Liberty Pole, which they did.
"TEA ACT " NEXT TARGET OF SONS
The next major event was the "Tea Act", and here again the New York Sons of Liberty led the opposition. On December 17th, 1773 a massive meeting was held, attended by 2,000 people, in spite of a terrible rain storm. John Lamb, as presiding officer, read letters from Boston and Philadelphia regarding their refusal to allow British Tea to be landed. The Mayor of New York then appeared and advised that the tea would be landed. Two resolutions were immediately approved. One opposing the landing of the tea and the other praising the "spirited and patriotic conduct of our brethren, of the City of Philadelphia, and the town of Boston." The Sons adopted the tried and proven tactic of organizing a group of "Mohawks" to stop any attempts to land the tea. Two ships arrived with cargoes of tea. One prudently returned to England without discharging its cargo; the other was boarded by "Mohawks", and like Boston, had its cargo dumped into the harbor.
When the merchants of New York received word that Parliament had closed the Port of Boston in retaliation for the "Boston Tea Party", they were sure they would be next. Their business sense told them that the closure of the port meant financial ruin for the Boston merchants. They did not want to share that fate.
On Monday evening, May 16th, they called a town meeting. The Sons of Liberty attended and a lively debate followed. A compromise was reluctantly agreed. to by the Sons. That agreement established a Committee of Fifty-one which would determine the direction the protesting New Yorkers would take. The Sons were concerned that the Committee of Fifty-one would put money ahead of principle. How right they were. Lt. Governor Colden wrote, on June 1st, 1774, to the Earl of Dartmouth that the "Committee of Fifty-one was comprised of some of the most prudent and considerate persons in New York".(6) History tells us that about forty percent of the Committee remained loyal to the crown after the Revolution broke out!
It did not take long before the Sons rebelled against the Committee of Fifty-one. They sponsored a nonportation agreement, collected donations for the relief of Boston, and organized a system that would include the masses in matters of political concern (one of the first truly democratic movements in the country). This effort prevented the Committee of Fifty-one from compromising the Revolutionary movement or even scuttling it entirely. In fact, their pressure on the Committee was so strong that the Committee eventually endorsed the calling of a Continental Congress. Two of the delegates were active members of the Sons of Liberty. The Sons had achieved a decade-old goal: the inclusion of their members in the policy making of the newly formed government. Those delegates joined several other Sons from other colonies, who were also serving as delegates.
LEXINGTON AND CONCORD SPURS ACTION
Word was received that a confrontation had taken place at Lexington and Concord, with many casualties on both sides - the rebellion had finally started! Immediately, Lamb and Sears called out a group of armed Sons and surprised the guards at the city's arsenal. They confiscated about "600 muskets with bayonets and cartridge boxes, each filled with paper cartridges." These arms were distributed among the Sons and thusly armed, they took possession of all public buildings and stores and assumed the administration of New York City. The Sons then boarded the ships in the harbor and confiscated all military supplies.
An agreement was reached with the small British garrison that they could evacuate the city, unmolested, provided that they and their Man-O-War, the seventy-four gun H.M.S. Asia did not fire on the city.
General Howe sent orders to the garrison to abandon New York City and reinforce the besieged British Army in Boston. The troops marched, under arms, with colors flying, down Broad Street; with them were several cart loads of extra muskets and ammunition. Marinus Willett immediately called up a group of Sons and confronted them at the intersection of Broad and Beaver Streets. He grabbed the reins of the lead horse and turned it around. The British protested and apparently were ready to do battle over the carts, but realizing they were outnumbered - and surely thinking about the heavy casualties suffered by their brother soldiers in Massachusetts backed down. Without the carts, they continued to march to the wharf, then boarded the waiting ships.
The Sons of Liberty contributed many officers and men to the Revolutionary army, and continued their vigil of the Colonies for supporters of the Crown. Their contribution to the cause of American Independence cannot be underestimated. It is an interesting aside that the Irish, also repressed by Great Britain, kept themselves closely informed about the activities of the American Sons of Liberty and estab- lished an organization, calling themselves "The Society of Free Citizens.", and closely followed the methods used by the Sons. Several of their leaders would go to Paris and meet with Minster Benjamin Franklin and receive the latest uncensored information from the colonies. Unfortunately, the Irish were not as successful. The Society of Free Citizens did manage to influence the English Parliament enough to cause the repeal of some of the terrible penal laws of Ireland.(9)
The California Society's Sons of Liberty Chapter is the only Chapter - SAR or DAR - that commemorates their memory through the name.
(1) Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) American Abolitionist.
(2) "The History of New York during the Revolution", by: T. Jones, (New York 1879).
(3) Letter to the Boston Sons of Liberty, April 2nd, 1766. Found in the "John Lamb Papers", New York Historical Society.
(4)The New York Mercury - January 27th, 1766.
(5) Tearing a house down was the preferred method of destruction at the time, as burning could easily spread to other houses.
(6) From the "Lt. Governor Colden" papers, Volume IV, page 253
(7) Willett's narrative in the "New York City in the Revolution", pp 54-55.
(8) "The History of New York State 1523-1927", by Dr. James Sullivan, pp 264.
(9)"A Hidden Phase of American History"; and "Ireland's Part in
America's Struggle for Liberty" by: Michael J. O'Brien.