Boston’s Liberty Tree Illuminated (Part I)

This Friday marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Boston’s Liberty Tree on August 14, 1765. An enormous elm whose arched boughs shaded the main road into Boston from the surrounding countryside, the Liberty Tree served as the gathering place for the first convulsive mass protest against Parliamentary legislation during the Revolutionary era and quickly emerged as the most potent symbol of the American cause. Towns and villages across North America identified Liberty Trees of their own and used them, as the people of Boston did, as places to come together, voice their grievances, and call for change. No other place speaks as plainly to the role that ordinary people played in making the American Revolution as does the site of Boston’s Liberty Tree.

Some of the 108 lanterns for Friday's event
(Courtesy of Martha McNamara)
On Friday night, Bostonians will remember this history by coming together where the Liberty Tree once stood, at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets. The event will connect participants and audience members to the American tradition of popular assembly so deeply rooted in this place and invite each person to reflect on the meaning of the American Revolution for our own era, 250 years on. To give shape to this conversation, participants belonging to five community organizations from across Boston will carry 108 lanterns, each decorated with artwork that speaks in its own way to the enduring legacy of the Liberty Tree.

The lanterns themselves tell an interesting story that connects back to both the history of the Liberty Tree itself and the historic Liberty Tree lantern in our museum collection. To unravel it, we must return to the August morning in 1765 when Bostonians first gathered beneath the Liberty Tree. As the sun rose that warm day, carts and foot-traffic passing into town came across two unusual objects hanging from the branches of the well-known elm: an effigy of Andrew Oliver, a high-ranking member of Massachusetts government and the man who had been appointed to oversee enforcement throughout the colony of the hated Stamp Act; and a green-soled boot containing a stylized representation of the devil. This last was a reference to the Earl of Bute, seen as the driving force behind Parliament’s decision to pass the Stamp Act in March 1765.

Bostonians reviled the Stamp Act because it imposed a tax on the colony without their consent. Massachusetts voters elected representatives to their own colony’s legislature, and few people contested that body’s right to enact taxes. However, no one in Massachusetts could cast a vote in Parliamentary elections. The Stamp Act was due to go into effect on November 1, 1765, but already it had been the topic of heated debate about town for more than a year. Everyone knew that the colony’s “humble petition” asking Parliament to repeal the act would be rejected. The congress proposed by the Massachusetts assembly as a means of coordinating the efforts of all the colonies to secure repeal would not take place until October, by which time it would be too late. If something were to be done, it would have to happen soon.

Corner of Essex and Orange Streets in 1774, showing Liberty Tree
(1958.0004.004) 
When Oliver and Bute’s effigies unexpectedly appeared in the arbor above a busy section of street, therefore, it struck a chord that resonated all across town. First hundreds and then thousands of Boston residents turned out to see the spectacle. As they approached the tree where the effigies hung, they could hear speakers exhorting them to stand strong in defense of the liberties that were their birthright as subjects of the British crown. By the hundreds they shouted “No!” when the speakers cried “Stamp!” As the crowd swelled, the royal governor called on the county sheriff to cut down the effigies and disperse the assembly. Sheriff Greenleaf’s deputies were barred from approaching the tree and sent away with a promise that the effigies would be removed at nightfall. And indeed they were. The throng removed the effigies and paraded with the likeness of Oliver up the street to the Town House (i.e., the Old State House). They marched through the building and directly beneath the governor’s chamber, chanting their opposition to the Stamp Act. Next the crowd proceeded to the waterfront, where they tore down a structure on Andrew Oliver’s dock that was believed to contain the stamped paper to be used in enforcing the Stamp Act. Finding no paper, they instead took the rubble from the destroyed building up nearby Fort Hill, where they burned it in full view of Oliver’s private home. Each piece of wood was ceremoniously “stamped” before being committed to the fire. And when the bonfire was sufficiently hot, Oliver’s effigy was sent to a fiery death—a far-from-subtle message to the provincial Secretary, who watched from this window not far off.

Oliver had seen his likeness hung from a tree with a rope about his neck, paraded through town, and consumed by flames. His property had been destroyed, and he surely felt lucky to have escaped with his own health intact. By the next morning, Oliver had resigned his post as stamp distributor for Massachusetts. No replacement could be found. The great mass of ordinary people had made their voices heard, and in one frightful blow the Stamp Act was made a dead letter throughout Massachusetts. Other towns soon followed Boston’s lead, and before long protests had forced the resignation of those charged with enforcing the Stamp Act in every colony but Georgia.

In Boston, the protesters and their sympathizers celebrated their victory by naming the tree where the protest began “the Liberty Tree.” A plaque bearing this title was affixed to the tree in early September, and a new organization calling itself the Sons of Liberty pledged to defend not just the tree but the larger cause of American liberty. As fall turned to winter, thousands continued to gather at the Liberty Tree to voice their opposition to the Stamp Act. Soon the newspapers were calling the space beneath the tree “Liberty Hall”—a reference, perhaps, to Faneuil Hall where the town government met and an indication that the proceedings in this outdoor space were seen by some, at least, as a legitimate part of the political process.

Liberty Tree Lantern in the Council Chamber
(1889.0024)
Check back next week for the continuation of this story and to learn more about the Liberty Tree lanterns. And please come to the Liberty Tree site at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets on Friday, August 14, at 8pm to join in commemorating 250 years of an important American ideal.

By Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History