Liberty Tree

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When Parliament finally accepted the reality that the Stamp Act could not be enforced and repealed the measure, Bostonians chose to celebrate at the Liberty Tree.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

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



Commemorating the Liberty Tree and the Stamp Act Riots

1889.0034.001
This month marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Boston's famous Liberty Tree. On August 14, 1765, Bostonians gathered beneath an enormous elm not far from Boston Common to protest the hated Stamp Act, which taxed the people of Massachusetts without their consent. The protest convinced the official charged with administering the tax to resign his office, and the tree where the protest had begun received a new name: the Liberty Tree.

This event is commonly viewed as the start of the American Revolution, while the Liberty Tree emerged as the most prominent symbol of the important role played by ordinary people in creating the new republic. The Bostonian Society will be commemorating the enduring legacy of the Liberty Tree at a number of upcoming events.

Join us at Liberty Tree Plaza (at the intersection of Washington and Boylston Streets) on August 14 at 8:00 pm for a lantern illumination.  Community organizations from throughout Boston will gather at the site of the Liberty Tree to display 108 copper lanterns modeled on the historic lanterns that were hung on the Liberty Tree during the Stamp Act crisis. The lanterns will be decorated with artwork and together will give expression to the meanings that the Liberty Tree holds for the people of Boston today. Nat Sheidley, our Historian and Director of Public History, will be one of the speakers at this event.  This event is a presented by Medicine Wheel Productions and Revolution250, a coalition of historic organizations (including the Bostonian Society) committed to working together to mark the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.

Almanac Tax Stamp, 1920.0002
Take part in Echoes of the Past, a free, live-action game on August 15 from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm.  Begin your adventure at the Old State House or at the Downtown Crossing Information Cart on Summer Street. Discover riddles, ciphers, grudges, and plots to learn the story of Boston's historic Stamp Act Riot. With the guidebook in hand (or using a web version on their mobile device) players will hunt for ghosts, or "Echoes of the Past." These live costumed interpreters will quickly draw  players into the political intrigues of 1765. After collecting a stamp for their book from each character in the game, players will discover the game's thrilling climax at 4:00 p.m. when they join together with an 18th-century mob to participate in a protest march from the site of the Liberty Tree to the hub of colonial power, the Old State House.

Participate in a reenactment of the Stamp Act Riot on August 15 at 4:00 pm.  Meet at the corner of Washington Street and Winter Street (next to the Downtown Crossing T Station) and join historic reenactors in period costume in a raucous march through the streets of Boston to the Old State House to protest the coming Stamp Act. Can the stamp distributor be compelled to resign his post? This event is co-sponsored by the Bostonian Society and Revolution250.

We hope that you'll be able to join us for these events, and please leave any questions in the comments.
 

Not that Samuel Adams! -- Chasing a Revolutionary Patriot across Boston (Part II)

As we learned in last week’s post, Samuel Adams bounced from job to job, but his engagement with radical politics was a constant in his life and his political inclinations likely influenced his steady resolve to preserve the flag. Adams always involved himself in local politics and was an outspoken fixture at town meetings. He supported Thomas Jefferson and the Whigs, and he was written about on one occasion as a great orator of Boston. He was a regular attendee at the anniversary celebrations of Thomas Paine’s birthday, where he made toasts decrying political and religious tyranny. Like Thomas Paine, he was an atheist. In his later years he became a radical abolitionist, allying himself with men like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

Liberty Tree, Boston Common.  1983.0003.011.144

In the 1850s, newspapers recognized him as one of the last surviving “relics” of the Revolutionary period and reported that he had an incredible memory of those times. At the 75th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence in 1851, he was one of three Revolutionary veterans riding in a carriage for the procession. By his own account, he witnessed the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the British departure from the town, and Washington’s entrance into Boston. He claimed to have been one of the “Boston boys,” young men who acted as sentinels for the Sons of Liberty when they had their secret meetings, and that he even served as the confidential messenger of the patriot Samuel Adams. He stated that he served as a privateer during the Revolution. Thus far it is difficult to confirm these impressive stories.

Adams began displaying the flag for various public occasions in the 1850s, including the anniversary celebration of Thomas Paine’s birthday in 1851 and a meeting of the Free Soil Club in 1852. He evidently wished that the flag continue to be used to support radical politics. In his will, he left it to his granddaughter, and then intended it to pass to Abby Folsom, another abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. He called it the “Flag of Freedom of yore hoisted over Liberty Tree so called in Boston,” though one wishes that he might have mentioned how he came to own it. This question still remains to be answered.

The impression that emerges from the details of Adams’s life is that of a man who lived through an incredible period of American history: from the last years of British colonial rule to the years leading up to the Civil War. He preserved the Liberty Tree Flag as a living emblem of the radical politics he was caught up in as a young man, and of the reforms he still hoped to bring about. In this effort he had a strong sense of history, evinced by his remarks at Boston’s last town meeting before it became a city:

“ ‘Names is nothing. Only let us have Boston, and I care not what you call it.’ ”

By Kathryn Griffith, History Department Intern

Not that Samuel Adams! -- Chasing a Revolutionary Patriot across Boston (Part I)

The Bostonian Society has on display at the Old State House what at first appears to be a rather unassuming textile. Unfurled, however, it is an enormous flag (8’ by 13’) with nine red and white stripes, and it came into the collections with a remarkable story: that it hung from the great Liberty Tree in the early days of the Revolution, and even a few years before, when the Sons of Liberty began opposing British rule in Boston.

Liberty Tree Flag, 1893.0093

Before coming to the Old State House, the flag was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. When Bostonian John C. Fernald donated the flag to the Society in 1894, it was noted that the flag had first belonged to Mr. Samuel Adams, a Boston wire-worker, who died in 1855 at age 96. For decades very little was known about this Samuel Adams or how he came into possession of the flag; sources often only repeated his name and occupation.

The flag is currently being prepared for an exhibition about the Liberty Tree, so I have been researching Adams to learn more about him and the flag. Following a centuries-old paper trail, I have tried to connect the dots between the appearance of a flag on the Liberty Tree (documented in Boston newspapers in the 1760s and 1770s) and the death of Adams in 1855. Why did an obscure wire-worker hold fast to the flag for more than seven decades? What did it mean to him?

I found a man who, far from being an anonymous Bostonian, was a well-known local character and who led a very long and interesting life. Samuel Adams was born in 1759, reportedly in the North End, to a book-binder named Benjamin Adams and his wife Abigail. Samuel had an older brother, Abraham, who became a leather-dresser and a well-respected citizen. Samuel married Catharine Fenno in Boston in 1781. They had 8 children together, including a son named for Benjamin Franklin, and a daughter, also Catharine, who married William Fenno, and through whose descendents the flag passed to John Fernald.

Adams moved around quite a bit according to the Boston city directories and the advertisements he placed in newspapers. He had several occupations during his lifetime; in fact it seems he came late to wire-working. In the 1790s Adams owned a wharf at the end of Cross Street from which he sold various goods. In the early 1800s he became the town crier, and printed a number of interesting advertisements announcing things he had found throughout the town. As a wire worker, his business was known as the Sign of the Flying Man and Fender Manufactory, and his advertisements included beautiful designs of his work. His work in wire also earned him the nickname, “Rat-Trap Adams,” by which he was known affectionately (or not, depending on the source).

The story of Samuel Adams and the Liberty Tree Flag will continue next week . . .

By Kathryn Griffith, History Department Intern