Boston’s Liberty Tree Illuminated (Part II)

In our last post, we examined the events that occurred in Boston on August 14, 1765. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Liberty Tree lanterns.

1889.0024
When Parliament finally accepted the reality that the Stamp Act could not be enforced and repealed the measure, Bostonians chose to celebrate at the Liberty Tree. News of the repeal arrived in Boston in May 1766. On May 19 and again on May 20, the entire town was illuminated by candlelight and the Liberty Tree itself was hung with dozens of lanterns. According to some accounts, 108 lanterns were hung from the tree—a reference to the margin by which the repeal passed in the House of Commons. “Liberty Hall” was decorated with banners and scrims painted with allegories depicting the story of liberty and the victory of Britannia, and the streets around the Liberty Tree were choked with revelers. In a way, the lanterns marked the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Liberty Tree, as it moved from serving as a site of assembly and political action to a site of memory, where the power of ordinary people to effect change through collective action was celebrated.

Though they have remarkable significance to the history of the American Revolution, not much is known from the surviving written accounts of the May 1766 celebrations about the lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree. Fortunately, at least three have survived, including one in the Society’s collection.

In many ways the Bostonian Society’s lantern is relatively undistinguished. Like most lanterns of the second half of the eighteenth century, it is made of tin and glass. It is large enough to accommodate two candles, but at just over 20 inches by just under 8 ½ inches it is not oversized. It is painted green, red, and gold, and the tinwork is well executed but not overly ornate.

Detail of 1889.0024
A closer look, however, reveals much that is of interest. The lantern bears a carefully wrought crown of elm leaf finials, a clear reference to the Liberty Tree itself. Importantly, the same finials are found atop all three surviving lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree in May 1766. This suggests that the lanterns were made as a set, either by a single tin worker or by multiple craftsmen working together. Clearly, the lanterns were not a spontaneous outpouring contributed by Boston residents; instead, they were part of a carefully planned commemoration of the repeal and of the Liberty Tree’s role in the defeat of the Stamp Act.

The materials from which the lantern was made tell us much about the mindset of the celebration’s organizers. During the Stamp Act crisis, Boston merchants had adopted a non-importation agreement - basically, a boycott of goods imported from Britain - and craftsmen and consumers alike were asked to forego goods made in England. With the repeal of the Stamp Act, however, British imports flooded back into the market, and it appears that even the group most committed to defeating the Stamp Act was happy to resume purchasing these goods. We know this because the lantern is made almost entirely of imported wares: the production of both tin and glass were prohibited in the colonies and had to be imported from Britain; even paint was primarily an imported luxury. The lantern suggests, in other words, that those in Boston who most bitterly contested the Stamp Act still considered themselves members in good standing of the larger imperial polity and beneficiaries of the British trading system that brought luxury imports to their small town on the periphery of the Atlantic world. The lanterns they used to commemorate the history of the Liberty Tree thus tell a more complex story than we might expect about the origins of the American Revolution and the place of Bostonians in shaping it.

Replica lantern at the August 14 event
(Courtesy of Heather Rockwood)
What would members of the Revolutionary generation make of Boston’s efforts to commemorate the history of the Liberty Tree 250 years after its birth as both a site of popular politics and a political symbol? The answer is hard to know, but we can be certain that they would recognize the power of memory to shape the world in which we live. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Boston in 1824, he stopped at the site of the Liberty Tree and declared: “The world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree.” But the world has forgotten both the spot and the tree. Earlier in August, we invited the public to reflect on the legacy entrusted to us by an earlier generation of Bostonians. As part of the event, 108 replica lanterns were carried through the city to the Liberty Tree site at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets.  We should not forget this spot, and the lanterns that illuminated it.

In an upcoming post, we will tackle a final mystery about the Society’s Liberty Tree lantern: who painted the words that appear on the bottom surface of the lantern?

By Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History