During the Parliamentary debate over the Stamp Act (1765), Isaac Barré referred to the American opponents of the new tax as the "Sons of Liberty*." Secret radical groups in the colonies adopted this name and worked to oppose the stamp tax and other later parliamentary revenue programs.
Membership in the Sons was largely middle class with more upper-class representation than lower. Relationships were often negotiated with street elements, which sometimes conducted violent actions often without the Sons' approval. A streak of conservatism remained a hallmark of the Sons until the 1770s. Initially they saw their role as the organizers of protests against specific government policies and not as the disrupters of royal authority.
The first such group was formed in New York City in the fall of 1765. Its leaders were Isaac Sears and Alexander McDougall, both prosperous self-made men and neither a beneficiary of inherited wealth. Loyalty to these men was widespread among the city's working elements.
One of their first contributions to Stamp Act opposition was to enforce nonimportation agreements. Greedy merchants would occasionally handle forbidden products, if the price were right. If discovered, the New York Sons of Liberty would force the guilty merchants to make humiliating public confessions - there were few repeat offenders. The New Yorkers also were active with contacting other colonies and encouraging resistance through committees of correspondence.
Not all New York demonstrations remained peaceful. In May 1766, the Sons interrupted the opening performance at a new theater by shouting, Liberty! and forcing the audience into the street. Wigs and other signs of class distinction were taken from the theatergoers. The building was pulled down and the resulting jumble of wood was used for a great bonfire.
Samuel Adams and Paul Revere headed the Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts. The Sons there also organized demonstrations, enforced boycotts, and occasionally resorted to violence to advance their agenda. Francis Bernard, governor of Massachusets, sent an account to the Earl of Halifax, an important figure in the British government, in which he remarked:
On Monday, August 26, there was some small rumor that mischief would be done that night, but it was in general disregarded. Toward evening some boys began to light a bonfire before the Town House, which is a usual signal for a mob. Before it was quite dark a great company of people gathered together crying liberty and property, which is the usual notice of their intention to plunder and pull down a house. They first went to Mr. Paxton's house (who is marshal of the Court of Admiralty and surveyor of the port) and finding before it the owner of the house (Mr. Paxton being only a tenant), he assured them that Mr. Paxton had quitted the house with his best effects; that the house was his; that he had never injured them; and finally invited them to go to the tavern and drink a barrel of punch. The offer was accepted and so that house was saved.
Similar groups were later formed in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia.
The Sons of Liberty's influence waned in most of the colonies following the repeal of the Stamp Act in early 1766. However, the movement was revived with the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767, and would remain a fixture of American resistance to the time of independence. It was then that they played a particularly prominent role in setting up the First Continental Congress (1774).
*The name Sons of liberty had frequently been used in earlier times by a variety of informal local groups organized to oppose unpopular government policies. Those groups were far surpassed by the numbers and influence of the Sons of Liberty of the 1760s and 1770s.
See timeline of the American Revolution .
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