Sons & Daughters of Liberty: A Lead up to Revolution

Lead to Revolution

This is a brief introduction to some of the causes leading into Colonial Rebellion. Virtual Americana’s purpose is to connect history with physical locations. However, some understanding of the political and economic historic context is necessary. If you would like more information about any of the Acts mentioned, there are abundant resources online describing them.

Much of the beginning of the movement that led to the American Revolution stemmed from actions of the British Crown, Parliament, and military in American Colonies in the Northeast, such as Massachusetts and New York. Various acts of taxation, disruption in what was once largely autonomous colonial governments, and overbearing actions by military units grated on colonists. 

Battle of Naseby
Battle of Naseby, by an unknown artist. The victory of the Parliamentarian New Model Army, under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, over the Royalist army, commanded by Prince Rupert, at the Battle of Naseby (June 14, 1645) marked the decisive turning point in the English Civil War.
Sugar cane plantations in the West Indies to manufacture the cane into sugar and molasses

After the English Civil War of the 1640s, especially upon the restoration of the Stuart monarchy later in that century, Navigation Acts passed by Parliament controlled Colonial trade. At the beginning, these Acts centered around controlling import of goods and export of resources to and from the Colonies. This reinforced the mercantilist relationship between Great Britain and the Colonies.

The British government revised these Acts at various points of the late 17th century, and for the most part colonists put up with it. Trouble with the Navigation Acts started in 1733 with the Molasses Act – it placed duties on the trade of sugar from the French West Indies in order to force colonists to purchase more expensive sugar from the British West Indies. The end result was a growth in the business of smuggling sugar products. 

Massachusetts was a hub of smuggling and tensions increased when the British Crown started enforcing these laws more vigorously in the 1760s. One of the reasons for this was the high cost of what we call the French and Indian War, but is also referred to as the 7 Years War in Europe, which was a globe-spanning conflict. Due to the costs of fighting a war across the Atlantic, Parliament felt that the Colonies needed to supply funds and support for their defense. There were additional tensions after this war, around the desire of colonists to expand into the Ohio River Valley and Britain’s decision to tolerate Quebeque’s Catholicism.

In the 1760s, the Crown granted customs officers writs of assistance, which allowed customs officials to be able to search any property without a specific warrant, and also force the hand of local governments to assist them. After King George II died, a group of Boston Merchants challenged the writs in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court  in 1761. Harvard graduate attorney James Otis Jr. provided the merchants with a powerful speech on their behalf in the courtroom of the State House. This speech, and a pamphlet published by Otis five years later, directly relates to what would become the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, barring the new government from producing such writs, and protecting the rights of property owners.

This decade was a tense one in the relationship between England and the Colonies. Another agitation was Stamp Act, which was the first direct taxation placed on colonists. 1765 also saw Parliament passing the Quartering Act, which residents resented, as Colonists used to self defense via voluntary militia did not appreciate having a standing army housed at their expense.

In Boston, and in New York, some men began working together in opposition of these unpopular laws, and this is where records show the first mentions of the Sons of Liberty. Women were not left out of the resistance movement, in fact the group of women that would come to be called the Daughters of Liberty were vitally important to both the resistance and the eventual Revolution.

In 1767, Parliament Passed the Townshend Acts , Consisting of...

The colonists, especially residents of Boston, resented these Acts and the taxes therein. Groups like the Daughters of Liberty organized boycotts of British goods. By March of 1770, Parliament repealed most of them, but stood their ground in regards to the tax on tea. After the Tea Act of 1773, which granted a trade monopoly to the British East India Company, the Sons of Liberty responded with the Boston Tea Party. This led to the Intolerable Acts of 1774. These acts closed the Port of Boston until the tea was paid, revoked the independent Charter for Massachusetts, replacing their elected government with a Governor appointed by the crown, and limited town meetings to a yearly event without permission, allowed the governor to try officials in Britain or elsewhere rather than Massachusetts courts, and the Quartering Act, allowing soldiers to be billeted in private property. Colonists also objected to the Quebec Act as they felt it favored Catholic Quebequois over Protestant Colonists. Rather than establishing order, it increased tensions as Colonists throughout the original 13 colonies felt that their freedoms and natural rights as declared in the Magna Carta were in peril of disappearing altogether. Despite the fact that they were British Citizens, they lacked the representation and power in Parliament to have much of a say on their governance.

Regarding the Liberty Tree

Your Lordship must know that Liberty Tree is a large, old Elm in the High Street, upon which the effigies were hung in the time of the Stamp Act, and from whence the mobs at that time made their parades. It has since been adorned with an inscription, and has obtained the name of Liberty Tree, as the ground under it has that of Liberty Hall. In August last, just before the commencement of the present troubles, they erected a flagstaff, which went through the tree, and a good deal above the top of the tree. Upon this they hoist a flag as a signal for the Sons of Liberty, as they are called.

Extract from a letter written by Governor Bernard to Lord Hillsborough June 18, 1768.
Philip_Dawe_(attributed),_The_Bostonians_Paying_the_Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering (1774)
A depiction of the tarring and feathering of Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, a Loyalist, by five Patriots on 5 January 1774 under the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Sons & Daughters of Liberty formed as a network of Colonists that opposed oppression by British authorities. Members included lawyers, craftsmen, and distinguished members of the community as well as folks who came from rougher and more humble walks of life. Their activities varied from publishing articles and pamphlets, boycotts, demonstrations, and when they deemed necessary, violent protests. One of the chief forms of protest was similar to what many folks do today – voting with your wallet – groups would organize boycotts of certain goods or of certain loyalist establishments, and would shame and harass those who broke the boycotts.

The quartering of troops upon British Americans, in time of peace, is quite repugnant to the Bill of Rights, and a measure that always has been considered as an intolerable grievance, by a free people--Bold and daring as the present M--rs have shewn themselves, in the rapid inroads they have made up on the British constitution; they have yet modestly aimed at saving appearances, with respect to the troops that have been cruelly intruded upon this town.

An editorial from the Boston Evening Post, published March 6 1769

Checking Comprehension !

Do you think it was fair of Parliament to start taxing the Colonies after the French and Indian War?
How do you think the historic boycotts of certain goods or merchants who imported boycotted goods, and newspaper articles calling out people who did not follow them compares to “cancel culture” on the internet today? How are they the same? How are they different?
Do you think you would have joined the Sons or Daughters of Liberty, or would you have stayed loyal to the crown? Why or why not?
Which of the Intolerable Acts do you think made the largest change in how Colonists lived? Support your answer.

If you would like to read some interesting primary source material, newspaper articles were gathered in a work entitled Boston Under Military Rule: 1768 – 1769 as revealed in A Journal of the Times. This was compiled in 1936 and a scanned version can be found at Haithi Trust.
Another excellent source is the collection of Revolutionary Era newspapers and pamphlets held by the Massachusetts Historical Society – The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. at
His goal was to form a political history of the new nation by gathering primary source material in four volumes. Harbottle Dorr, Jr. was a merchant and a member of the Sons of Liberty.

If you find some of these sources harder to read, and the spelling a bit odd, this article may help:
Reading old manuscripts – the long s.