Sons of Liberty

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Tue Aug 7 01:09:41 UTC 2012

The phrase "sons of liberty" appeared in:

1738, in a general discourse on the liberties due Americans as Englishmen;
1764 November (before Barre's speech), in
discussing a proposed act of Parliament
preventing the northern colonies from exporting fish except to England;
1765 May, reporting Barré's speech to Parliament;
1765 July, in a letter about a suit for damages;
1765 Aug. 12, as a reference to the freemen of
Providence assembled in a town meeting;
(several more times in 1765, to
1765 Nov 4, perhaps the earliest instance that
refers to an organized group of some Bostonians.

Thus the phrase was current in the colonies
before Barre's speech.  Whether that was the
source for the organization Sons of Liberty or
Barre's speech re-ignited the phrase; and whether
Barre had picked it up in America or reinvented it, I do not know.

I would love to claim I gathered all this up in
the idle hours between now and Victor's 4:00 PM
message (which I could not have read until about
5:15 as I was otherwise occupied by the overtime
victory of the United States women's soccer team
over some British possession).  But that would be
presumptuous (oops, I'm supposed be
presumptuous).  Rather, the above summarizes a
message I sent to Jesse on March 8, 2010, which I
have attached in its entirely below (except for one nonessential deletion).

I have not searched thoroughly for what
historians may say about the origin of the
phrase, but from my somewhat more than casual but
much less than thorough reading about the period
leading up to the Revolution I do not recall
their making any allegations about its origin.


Beginning of 3/8/2010 data]

There is no entry for "Sons of Liberty" in the
OED.  I don't know whether there should be.  Nor
do I know whether one should distinguish a
specific reference to the organized group(s) that
sprang up in the second half of 1765, at the time
of the Stamp Act and Oliver's hanging in effigy
at the Liberty Tree, from more general references
to those colonials who were resistant to the British government's measures.

The following is in chronological order [EAN],
searching for both "sons of liberty" and "son of
liberty" [parenthetical comment deleted that now
seems to be incorrect].  A large number of
quotations, and perhaps too much history, but I
wanted to include all quotations up to the first
that seem to be references to the organized "Sons
of Liberty" groups, on 1765 Nov. 4.  (This date is significant; see below.)

(1)  1738 April 20:

Let us not be cast down, my Country Men, by the
Frowns of Power in any shape, whilst we behave
ourselves as b[e]comes good Christians and
Subjects; but like true Sons of Liberty, speak
our Minds freely and openly, and if we meet with
any real Grievance not sink under it, but do our
utmost Endeavor to remove the Cause, and obtain
Justice by all legal and justifiable Means.

Source:  American Weekly Mercury [Philadelphia];
Date: From Thursday April 13, to Thursday April
20, 1738; Issue: 955; Page: 2nd [identified by EAN as "1"], col. 2.

Although this issue contains an "Appendix," this
quotation appears on the page containing the
masthead and date.  However, other pages are
clearly out of sequence (see the continuation
"Men" from the 2nd to the 4th page).

The article is No.1; I have not checked whether
the series continues.  The writer says he will
"blend" some of the letters of Cato with his own
writing, and signs his article "Cato Junior."  It
seems to be a general discourse on liberty,
property, public justice, and the "Duty of a good
magistrate" (see col. 1), without any reference to specific events.

(2)  1764, October:

This last taxing of North-America, doth but
complete the System of the Sugar Planters; and if
we go on in our old Way of dealing with them, we
shall very soon be as much their servants as
their Negroes are. Surely, if there be such a
warm Sense of Liberty among us, as my Friend
Britannus assures us there is, we shall not
submit to this. But I doubt he is mistaken, as I
have seen many of these Sons of Liberty, rather
than forego a trifling Advantage, offer Incence
to, and tremble before a Custom-House Officer.

Source:  Providence [Rhode Island] Gazette, Date:
10-06-1764; Volume: II; Issue: 103; Page: [3], col. 3.

This is not a reference to the Stamp Act.  The
Providence writer refers to a letter by
"Britannus" in the Boston Gazette of Sept. 24,
1764, page 2. "Britannus Americanus" wrote about
an alarming act of Parliament which "will take
place in a few days," preventing the northern
colonies from exporting fish except to England.

(3)  1765 May, a report of Isaac Barré's speech
to Parliament:  (Aso reported in an August 1 newspaper.)

Extract of a Letter from London.
"Which [Townshend] having said and sat down, Mr.
Barre arose, and ... spoke as follows
... Men, whose Behavior, on many Occasions, has
caused the Blood of those Sons of LIBERTY, to recoil within them

Source:  Boston Post-Boy; Date: 05-27-1765;
Issue: 406; Page: [3], col. 2--3 (phrase on 3)].

(4)  1765 July, a letter about a suit for damages:

P. S. After I came home; I got the Affair
settled, and my Goods released. I suppose their
Intent was to have seized to the Value of 50 or
60l. Lawful Money, and cart the Goods away, to
pay 11l. 4 5s. Execution, with Costs.---Let the
Sons of Liberty judge, whether this is most
agreeable to an English Government, or to the
arbitrary Measures of some Foreign States.

Source:  Newport [Rhode Island] Mercury; Date:
07-15-1765; Issue: 358; Page: [3], col. 3.

(5)  1765 August:  Another report of Barré's
speech.  However, unlike EAN, I couldn't find "sons of liberty" on the page!

Source:  Georgia Gazette; Date: 08-01-1765; Issue: 122; Page: [1], ? col. 1.

(6)  1765 Aug. 12, as a reference to the freemen
of Providence assembled in a town meeting.  Also
in New-York Mercury; Date: 08-19-1765; Issue: 721; Page: [2].

We hear from Providence, in the Colony of Rhode
Island, that the Freemen of that Town being
lately called, to confer on such Measures as
should appear to them necessary relative to the
STAMP-ACT, whereby the Liberties, the darling
Boast of the English North American Subjects ...
must be greatly abridged ... they accordingly met
... and unanimously appointed a Committee to
prepare Instructions {for] their Representatives
... in the next general Assembly ... and that
they are to be laid before the Town for their
Approbation tomorrow: at which Time those Sons of
Liberty are to convene again for the noblest of
all Causes, their Country's Good.

Source:  Boston Post-Boy; Date: 08-12-1765; Issue: 417; Page: [3], col. 2.

(7)  1765 Aug. 24.  Same in Newport [Rhode
Island] Mercury; Date: 09-02-1765; Issue: 365; Page: [1];

To the Inhabitants of New-England ...
The Subject of our late Grievances, as Colonists,
hath been so largely and ably discussed by
American Pens, that it would be an unnecessary
Task, If I was equal to it, to enter the Lists as
a Writer on the Side of the Colonies. It must
give the highest Satisfaction to the Descendants
of the primitive Fathers of these Regions, and
all the American Sons of Liberty, that amongst
them are found such Patriots, who, actuated by
the same noble Sentiments of Liberty that
inspired the renowned Founders of these Colonies,
have the Virtue to display to the World their
indefeasible Rights, and the Violence it must be
in any Persons to take them away.

Source:  Providence [Rhode Island] Gazette; Date:
08-24-1765; Page: [1], col. 1.

(8)  1765 October 7:

Extract from the Constitutional Courant, No. 1.
Printed by Andrew Marvel, at the Sign of the
Bribe refused, on Constitution Hill, North-America.
Let their names be enrolled in the annals of
fame; let them be embalmed to all posterity, and
serve as examples to fire the breast of patriots
yet unborn. Others, we find, have been
intimidated into a resignation, by those hardy
sons of liberty, and have the mortification to
see all their vile schemes of enriching
themselves out of the plunder of their fellow-subject, blasted in an instant.

Source:  Newport [Rhode Island] Mercury; Date:
10-07-1765; Issue: 370; Page: [2], col 1.

(9)  1765 October 21:

As the People of these Colonies are fully
convinced of the fatal Consequences attending a
Compliance with the Stamp Act,--- ... it may seem
injurious to imagine, that the Inhabitants of
this Colony will ever betray a Character so
utterly inconsistent with that Spirit which ought
invariably to actuate the noble Sons of Liberty,
as ever to submit to become Purchasers of any of the Stamped Papers ...

Source:  Newport [Rhode Island] Mercury; Date:
10-21-1765; Issue: 372; Page: [3], col. 1.

(10)  1765 Nov 4.  Perhaps the earliest instance
that refers to an organized group of some Bostonians.

An Evidence of this ["Order and Decorum"] we had
last Friday, being the fatal First of
November.  The Effigies of certain Persons were
exhibited upon the TREE OF LIBERTY ...
We are assured, and have good Reason to think,
that if any Exhibitions are made, as usual, on
the 5th of November, the same unexceptionable
Behavior will be observed as on Friday last;
those Sons of Liberty having engaged to unite as
Brethren in preventing Disorders of every Kind.

Source:  Boston Evening Post, 11-04-1765, Issue
1573; page 3, col. 1.  Very similar in Boston
Gazette; Date: 11-04-1765; Issue: 553; Page: 2nd
[called by EAN "1"], col. 2  Another issue with
Supplements; pages may be out of sequence or misdated.

(Nov. 1 of course was the date the Stamp Act was
to become effective in Massachusetts, and Nov. 5
was "Pope's Day," the colonial Guy Fawkes Day.)

(11)  1765 Nov. 4, for "a Son of
Liberty".  Perhaps a reference to someone from
the organized "Sons," perhaps not.

Datelines (far above) "Newport, November 4".

... The Funeral began to move at 12 o'Clock, from
the Crown Coffee-House, toward the Burying
Ground. ...The Procession ... at length arrived
at the Place of Internment, where the Mourners
were about taking their LAST FAREWELL of their
old Friend LIBERTY.---"Oh!---LIBERTY!---Oh!
FREEDOM!---where art thou going?---Oh! my ruin'd
Country!"---The mournful Aspiration was scarcely
utter'd, when a Son of LIBERTY emerging from the
horrid Gloom of Despair, addressed himself
thus:---"Oh LIBERTY! the Darling of our Soul [etc.]

Source:  Newport [Rhode Island] Mercury; Date:
11-04-1765; Issue: 374; Page: [3];   A similar
article, datelined "Newport, Rhode-Island, Nov.
4" (with the dateline immediately before the
article), appears in the Boston Evening Post, 11-11-1765, page 3, col. 1.

I can't tell whether this describes an actual
mock funeral, or is perhaps a quotation or
paraphrase from Addison's Cato, which is
evidently quoted from a little earlier.  A
similar mock funeral at Portsmouth, N.H., was
described in the Boston Newsletter of Nov. 7 and
the Boston Evening Post of Nov. 11.
[End of 3/8/2010 data]

At 8/6/2012 05:56 PM, Victor Steinbok wrote:
>Although Wilkes had never crossed the Atlantic, a number of his
>relatives had, leaving behind several US military commanders and John
>Wilkes Booth (a distant relation, nonetheless named in tribute). On the
>other hand, Barre's exploits in the colonies might have established his
>reputation, but that's not what appears to be at play here. Franklin and
>the rest of the delegation were in direct contact with Barre in January
>and February of 1765, when Barre made his speech. The word of the
>bill--and likely of the speech--made it back to the colonies in early
>May, at the latest (likely earlier) and the Sons of Liberty were known
>to be active in Massachusetts and Connecticut as early as August of that
>year (with some indications of earlier existence). Wilkes-Barre was
>founded and, I believe, named in 1769. It is clear that Barre's actions
>that earned him the recognition were of quite direct and practical
>nature, which is why I believe the name of the association was a direct
>tribute to him. Wilkes, on the other hand, appears to have been mostly
>recognized for his intellectual support--particularly for issues that
>ended up in the Bill of Rights (in no small matter connected to Wilkes's
>own eponymous document).
>     VS-)
>On 8/6/2012 5:22 PM, Paul Johnston wrote:
>>Barre served on this side of the pool during
>>the French and Indian War and was wounded at
>>Quebec.  He had lots of contacts among American
>>merchants and remained "on our side", along
>>with John Wilkes (hence Wilkes-Barre, PA) throughout the Revolution, too.
>>Paul Johnston
>>On Aug 6, 2012, at 4:01 PM, victor steinbok wrote:
>>>Is there a direct connection between Isaac Barre's speech in the House of
>>>Commons prior to the passage of the Stamp Act and the name of the colonial
>>>association? The identity of the cause certainly suggests that Barre's
>>>speech was known in the colonies and in Massachusetts in particular. More
>>>specifically, is there any evidence of a direct connection?
>>>Here's the excerpt of the rather famous speech (from Lossing's Field Book
>>>of the Revolution):
>>>Colonel Barr=E9 arose, and, echoing Townshend=92s words, thus commented: "T=
>>>>planted by your care! No, your oppressions planted them in America. They
>>>>fled from your tyranny, to a then uncultivated and inhospitable country,
>>>>where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human
>>>>nature is liable, and, among others, to the cruelties of a savage foe, the
>>>>most subtle, and I will take upon me to say, the most formidable of any
>>>>people upon the face of God=92s earth; yet, actuated by principles of true
>>>>English liberty, they met all hardships with pleasure compared with those
>>>>they suffered in their own country, from the hands of those who should have
>>>>been their friends. They nourished up by your indulgence! They grew by your
>>>>neglect of them. As soon as you began to care about them, that care was
>>>>exercised in sending persons to rule them in one department and another,
>>>>who were, perhaps, the deputies of deputies to some members of this House,
>>>>sent to spy out their liberties, to
>>>>misrepresent their actions, and to prey upon
>>>>them -- men whose behavior on many occasions has caused the blood of
>>>>those SONS OF LIBERTY [11] to recoil within them -- men promoted to the
>>>>highest seats of justice; some who, to my knowledge, were glad, by going to
>>>>a foreign country, to escape being brought to the bar of public justice in
>>>>their own. They protected by your arms! They have nobly taken up arms in
>>>>your defense; have exerted a valor, amid their constant and laborious
>>>>industry, for the defense of a country whose frontier was drenched in
>>>>blood, while its interior parts yielded all its little savings to your
>>>>emoluments. And believe me -- remember I this day told you so -- that same
>>>>spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first will accompany them
>>>>still; but prudence forbids me to explain myself further. God knows I do
>>>>not at this time speak from motives of party heat; what I deliver are the
>>>>genuine sentiments of my heart. However superior to me, in general
>>>>knowledge and experience, the respectable body of this House may be, I
>>>>claim to know more of America than most of you, having seen and been
>>>>conversant in that country. The people, I believe, are as truly loyal as
>>>>any subjects the king has; but a people jealous of their liberties, and who
>>>>will vindicate them if ever they should be violated. But the subject is too
>>>>delicate; I will say no more." For a moment after the utterance of these
>>>>solemn truths the House remained in silent amazement; but the utter
>>>>ignorance of American affairs, and the fatal delusion wrought by ideas of
>>>>royal power and colonial weakness, which prevailed in that assembly, soon
>>>>composed their minds. [12] Very little debate was had upon the bill, and it
>>>>passed the House after a single division, by a majority of two hundred and
>>>>fifty to fifty. In the Lords it received scarcely any opposition. On the
>>>>22d of March the king cheerfully gave his assent, and the famous Stamp Act
>>>>-- the entering wedge for the dismemberment of the British empire -- became
>>>>a law. The protests of colonial agents, the remonstrances of London
>>>>merchants trading with America, and the wise suggestions of men acquainted
>>>>with the temper and resources of Americans were set at naught, and the
>>>>infatuated ministry openly declared "that it was intended to establish the
>>>>power of Great Britain to tax the colonies." "The sun of liberty is set,"
>>>>wrote Dr. Franklin to Charles Thompson [13] the very night that the act was
>>>>passed; "the Americans must light the lamps of industry and economy."
>>>[Original emphasis not preserved--several parts of the statement were
>>>"echoes" of Townshend's speech in support of the Stamp Act.]
>>>Lossing was certainly convinced of the connection. Here are the cited
>>>[11] This was the origin of the name which the associated patriots in
>>>>America assumed when the speech of Barr=E9 reached the colonies, and
>>>>organized opposition to the Stamp Act was commenced.
>>>>[12] The apathy that prevailed in the British Parliament at that time
>>>>respecting American affairs was astonishing, considering the interests at
>>>>issue. Burke, in his Annual Register, termed it the "most languid debate"
>>>>he had ever heard; and so trifling did the intelligent Horace Walpole
>>>>consider the subject, that, in reporting every thing of moment to the Earl
>>>>of Hertford, he devoted but a single paragraph of a few lines to the debate
>>>>that day on America. Indeed, Walpole honestly confessed his total ignorance
>>>>of American affairs.
>>>>[13] Mr. Thompson was afterward the Secretary of the Continental Congress.
>>>>In reply to Franklin=92s letter he said, "Be
>>>>assured, we shall light torches
>>>>of another sort," predicting the convulsions that soon followed.
>>>But I don't seem to find any parallel reference to this fact among
>>>contemporary history books (my sample is admittedly fairly small).
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list