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The Liberty Tree (1646–1775) was a famous elm tree that stood in Boston near Boston Common, in the days before the American Revolution. Ten years before the American Revolution, colonists in Boston staged the first act of defiance against the British government at the tree. The tree became a rallying point for the growing resistance to the rule of Britain over the American colonies.
In 1765 the British government imposed a Stamp Act on the American colonies. It required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. Because the Act applied to papers, newspapers, advertisements, and other publications and legal documents, it was viewed by the colonists as a means of censorship, or a "knowledge tax," on the rights of the colonists to write and read freely.
On 14 August 1765, a crowd gathered in Boston under a large elm tree at the corner of Essex Street and Washington Street, originally called Orange Street, to protest the hated Stamp Act. Patriots who later called themselves the Sons of Liberty had hung in effigy Andrew Oliver, the colonist chosen by King George III to impose the Stamp Act, in the branches of the tree. Up in the tree with the effigy hung a British cavalry jackboot. Grinning from inside the boot was a devil-like doll holding a scroll marked “Stamp Act.” It was the first public show of defiance against the Crown and spawned the resistance that led to the American Revolutionary War 10 years later. On 10 Sept., a sign saying "Tree of Liberty" was nailed to the trunk of the tree.
In the years leading up to the war, the British made the Liberty Tree an object of ridicule. British soldiers tarred and feathered a man named Thomas Ditson, and forced him to march in front of the tree. During the siege of Boston, a party of Loyalists led by Job Williams defiantly cut the tree down in an act of spite, knowing what it represented to the colonists, and used the tree for firewood. This act only further enraged the colonists. As resistance to the British grew, flags bearing a representation of the Liberty Tree were flown to symbolize the unwavering spirit of liberty. These flags were later a common sight during the battles of the American Revolution.
In October 1966, the Boston Herald began running stories pointing out that the only commemoration of the Liberty Tree site was a grimy plaque on a building three stories above what is now the intersection of Essex and Washington Streets. Reporter Ronald Kessler found that the plaque, a block east of Boston Common, was covered with bird droppings and obscured by a Kemp’s hamburger sign.
No one in the area had even noticed the site “where America was born.” Local guidebooks did not mention it.
Kessler persuaded then Massachusetts Governor John A. Volpe to visit the site. A photo of Volpe examining the plaque from a fire engine ladder appeared on page one of the 6 October 1966 edition of the Boston Herald.
According to Kessler, Volpe promised to preserve the site in the form of a park with monuments, and "Edward J. Logue, the administrator of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said the park would be a 'handsome, open space' with grass, benches, plaques explaining the history of the tree, and 'the largest elm tree that can be transported and is resistant to Dutch elm disease.'...That promise was never fulfilled." The Boston Redevelopment Authority ultimately placed a small bronze plaque in the sidewalk across the street from the bas relief plaque. The plaque bears the inscription "Sons of Liberty, 1766; Independence of the Country, 1776."
Kessler explored the subject further and presented the entire history of the Liberty Tree in "America Must Remember Boston's Liberty Tree".
Under the direction of Charles Lynch, a Virginian who operated an irregular court during the Revolutionary War, suspected Tory sympathizers would be tied to a tree, stripped to the waist, and administered thirty-nine lashes of the whip on the bare back. If the victim did not then shout "Liberty Forever," he would be suspended by his thumbs until he did.
Other towns designated their own Liberty Trees as well. The Liberty Tree in Acton, Massachusetts, was an elm tree that lasted until about 1925. In 1915, knowing that the Liberty Tree was getting older, Acton students planted the Peace Tree, a Norway Maple that still stands today.
Liberty Trees that were designated in the other Thirteen Original Colonies were eventually lost over time as well. The last surviving original Liberty Tree from the Revolutionary War period was a 400+ year-old tulip poplar that stood on the grounds of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The tree was finally felled in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd caused irreparable damage to it. The wood from this tree was acquired and progressively used by Taylor Guitars to produce limited-edition musical instruments: 400 of their Grand Concert guitars; 400 of their Baby Taylor guitars; and 50 of their T5 guitars (each named for one of the fifty States, sequenced in the order in which that State joined the Union).
In the 1990s, some Acton school children again gathered to plant the Freedom Tree. This tree, a London Plane tree, was planted the same week that Apartheid ended in South Africa.
The Arbres de la liberté ("Liberty Trees"), inspired by the American example, were a symbol of the French Revolution, the first being planted in 1790 by a pastor of a Vienne village, inspired by the 1765 Liberty Tree of Boston. The last surviving liberty elm in France from c.1790 still stands in the parish of La Madeleine at Faycelles, in the Département de Lot. A Liberty Tree was also planted in front of the City Hall of Amsterdam on 4 March 1795, in celebration of the alliance between the French Republic and the Batavian Republic.
İn 1798, with the establishing of the short-lived Roman Republic, such a tree was also planted in Rome's Piazza delle Scole, to mark the legal abolition of the Roman Ghetto (which was, however, re-instated with the resumption of Papal rule). The last surviving liberty elm in Italy, planted in 1799 to celebrate the new Parthenopean Republic, stood until recently in Montepaone, Calabria. The tree was badly damaged in a storm in 2008 and has been replaced by a clone.
Aside from the concrete tree, the term "Tree of Liberty" is associated with Thomas Jefferson's quotation, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
For many years the remnant of the tree was used as a reference point by local citizens, similar to the Boston Stone, and became known as the "Liberty Stump." Later the citizens in many of the colonies erected a Liberty pole in commemoration of the Liberty Tree.