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The Sons of Liberty was an organization of dissidents that originated in the North American British colonies. The secret society was formed to protect the rights of the colonists and to take to the streets against the abuses of the British government. They are best known for undertaking the Boston Tea Party in 1773 in reaction to the Tea Act, which led to the Intolerable Acts (an intense crackdown by the British government), and a counter-mobilization by the Patriots.
In the popular imagination, 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. The well-known label allowed organizers to issue 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."
After defeating France in the French and Indian War, the government sought to recoup its costs and keep 10,000 men stationed in the colonies, and intended that the colonists contribute, whom it viewed as chief beneficiaries of the French defeat. It passed a series of taxes, and when the Americans refused to pay on the argument of "No Taxation without Representation" (there were no colonial representatives in Parliament), Parliament insisted on its right to rule the colonies. The most incendiary tax was the Stamp Act of 1765, which caused a firestorm of opposition through legislative resolutions (starting in Virginia), public demonstrations (starting in Massachusetts), threats, and occasional hurtful losses.
The organization spread month by month, after independent starts in several different colonies. August 1765 celebrated the founding of the group in Boston. By November 6, a committee was set up in New York to correspond with other colonies. In December an alliance was formed between groups in New York and Connecticut. January bore witness to a correspondence link between Boston and New York City, and by March, Providence 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 Norfolk, Virginia, and a local group established in North Carolina was attracting interest in South Carolina and Georgia.
The leaders of the Sons of Liberty heralded mostly from the middle class, artisans, traders, lawyers and local politicians. Samuel Adams and his cousin John were not members of the Sons of Liberty. However there were members of the Sons of Liberty who had influential power with the people such as Benjamin Edes, a printer, and John Gill of the Boston Gazette. They produced a steady stream of news and opinion.” Samuel Adams was connected to the Boston Gazette and published many articles under a pen name. This implies that Samuel Adams probably was participatory in the organization through writing, shared opinion, and association with prominent members. Though they were speaking out against the actions of the British government, they still claimed to be loyal to the Crown. Their initial goal was to ensure their rights as Englishmen. Throughout the Stamp Act Crisis, the Sons of Liberty professed continued loyalty to the King because they maintained a "fundamental confidence" in the expectation that Parliament would do the right thing and repeal the tax.
To add weight to their cause, the Sons of Liberty knew they needed to appeal to the masses that made up the lower classes. Several members of the Sons of Liberty were printers/publishers and distributed articles about the meetings and demonstrations the Sons of Liberty held, as well as about the fundamental political beliefs of the group and what they wanted to accomplish. They related in print the major events of the struggle against the new acts to promote their cause and vilify the local officers of the British government. Office holders identified by the Sons of Liberty as being part of the Stamp Act injustice quickly fell out of favor and lost their positions once local elections were held again. The Sons of Liberty would hold meetings to decide which candidates to support—those that would bring about the desired political change. In return, the British authorities attempted to denigrate the Sons of Liberty by referring to them as the "Sons of Violence" or the "Sons of Iniquity."
Furthermore, the inter-communication afforded the Colonies by the widespread nature of the Sons of Liberty allowed for decisive action against the Townshend Act in 1768. One by one the groups penned agreements limiting trade with Britain and imposing a highly effective boycott against importation and sale of British goods.
In many cases their public meetings turned violent. Though the lower classes often agreed with the ideas presented by the Sons of Liberty, they wanted more action than words and simple shows of numbers. As such, the property of the gentry, customs officers and other British authorities often fell victim to the volatile nature of mobs.
In New York City the Sons of Liberty would put up liberty poles to stand as a testament to their resolve. The British soldiers would tear them down almost as soon as they were put up. This back and forth action resulted in several skirmishes between the two sides. Most notable among these engagements was the Battle of Golden Hill on January 19, 1770, in which many people were injured and at least one killed. Violent outbreaks over the pole raged intermittently from 1766 until the Patriots gained control of New York City government in April 1775.
In Boston, another example of the violence they committed could be found in their treatment of a local stamp distributor, Andrew Oliver. They burned his effigy in the streets. When he did not resign, they 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 violent actions made many of the stamp distributors resign in fear.
The Sons of Liberty were also responsible for the burning of HMS Gaspée in 1772.
In December 1773, 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 their opposition 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". The Sons of Liberty took direct action to enforce their opposition to the Tea Act at the Boston Tea Party. Members of the group, wearing disguises meant to evoke the appearance of Native American Indians, poured several tons of tea into the Boston Harbor in protest of the Tea Act. The Sons of Liberty sat in the long room above member Benjamin Edes's print shop and planned the famous tea party. During the planning, the Sons of Liberty drank from a punch bowl later donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.
Early in the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty generally evolved into or were superseded by more formal groups such as the Committee of Safety.
After the end of the American Revolutionary War, Isaac Sears along with Marinus Willet and John Lamb, in New York City, revived 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. Alexander Hamilton defended the Loyalists citing the supremecy of the treaty.
In 1767, the Sons of Liberty adopted a flag called the rebellious stripes flag with nine uneven vertical stripes (five red and four white). It is supposed that nine represented the Loyal Nine. A flag having 13 horizontal red and black stripes, used by American merchant ships during the war, was also associated with the Sons of Liberty. While red and white were common colors of the flags, other color combinations, such as green and white, in addition to yellow and white, were used.
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At various times and places in later American history, there were groups and societies either claiming to be a continuation of the historic Sons of Liberty or taking up the name in the service of very divergent causes and issues.
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The name was also used during the American Civil War. Early in 1865, the Copperhead organization, the Knights of the Golden Circle, was reorganized as the Order of the Sons of Liberty. Like their namesakes, these Sons of Liberty spoke out and acted against what they saw as an injustice of thwarted rights. In this case, the injustice was being committed by the United States government by denying the rights of the Southern States to leave the Union. The Order of the Sons of Liberty, found mostly in the Northwestern states of the time—Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky—agreed with the idea that the Union was a voluntary establishment and held the view that any state wishing to leave and create its own form of government should be allowed to do so.
Unlike the pre-independence era Sons of Liberty, the Civil War era Order of the Sons of Liberty was a highly doctrinal, hierarchical organization. The original Sons of Liberty were united simply in their desire to change the political attitude of the British government, but they often differed on the methods that were supposed to be used and on the specifics of the end result. The Order of the Sons of Liberty required members to swear an oath of allegiance to its cause, and it had a strict list of purposes that were supposed to be followed on pain of punishment. Whereas, the eighteenth century Sons of Liberty tried to avoid large scale military conflicts, the nineteenth century organization planned for them, collecting and distributing guns and ammunition to its members. The Order of the Sons of Liberty opposed the Union draft and planned to fight with Southern troops.
Furthermore, after the Revolutionary War, the original Sons of Liberty were looked upon as patriots and as great leaders of the new country. After the Civil War, the new Order of the Sons of Liberty faced charges of treason.
In the late 1940s, the name "Sons of Liberty" was taken up by an anti-British group active in the US and calling for the boycott of British films and products. At the time, the group's activities were described as in a news item entitled "UK bitter at US picketing of films" published in "The Argus" at Melbourne, Australia.
"A bunch of outlaws" was the term applied by Mr. William Heineman, vice-president of Eagle-Lion, to the American "Sons of Liberty" who are picketing cinemas that show British films in the US. Eagle-Lion are the distributors for J. Arthur Rank productions. Heineman added that some exhibitors, especially those who were Jewish, were influenced by the "unlawful pressure" of the Sons of Liberty.
Sir Alexander Korda, the British producer, has decided to send no more films to America until the picketing of American cinemas by the Sons of Liberty stops. The league is an anti-British body formed by Professor John Amertenko, who was not allowed to stay in Britain.
Sir Alexander said: "The Sons of Liberty have not stopped British cloth and Scotch whiskey from being sold, but films are taken off immediately.
Jewish exhibitors being receptive to the group's pressure might be due to bitterness over the confrontation taking place at the time between British authorities in Mandatory Palestine and the Zionist Jewish organizations there, to whom many American Jews were sympathetic.
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The patriotic spirit of the Sons of Liberty has been immortalized in modern times by Walt Disney Pictures through their film adaptation of Esther Forbes's novel Johnny Tremain. Within the movie the Sons of Liberty sing a rousing song titled "The Liberty Tree". This song raises the Liberty Tree to a national icon in a manner similar to the way George M. Cohan's "You're a Grand Old Flag" revitalized adoration for the American flag in the early twentieth century.
The Sons of Liberty are also referenced in the 2001 video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It references them in the title, while a group within the game calls itself, and models itself after, the Sons of Liberty.