The History of the Liberty Tree
The Liberty Tree (1646–1775) was a famous elm tree that stood in Boston, near Boston Common, in the days before the American Revolution. The tree was a rallying point for the growing resistance to the rule of Britain over the American colonies. In 1765 the British government imposed a Stamp Act on the American colonies. It required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. Because the Act applied to papers, newspapers, advertisements, and other publications and legal documents, it was viewed by the colonists as a means of censorship, or a “knowledge tax,” on the rights of the colonists to write and read freely.
In the years that followed, almost every American town had its own Liberty Tree—a living symbol of popular support for individual liberty and resistance to tyranny. In some locales, a Liberty Pole rather than a tree served the same political purpose.
The summer of 1765 in Boston was marked by militant citizens demonstrating against the Stamp Act. On August 14, 1765, a group of men calling themselves the Sons of Liberty gathered in Boston under a large elm tree at the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street near Hanover Square to protest the hated Stamp Act. They also commissioned Paul Revere to design a medal that each member wore that bore the image and the caption “Liberty Tree.” Led in Maryland by the prominent attorney Daniel Dulany wrote a persuasive pamphlet on the evils of the tax.
The Sons of Liberty concluded their protest by lynching two tax collectors in effigy from the tree. From that day forward, the tree became known as the “Liberty Tree.” The tree was often decorated with banners and lanterns. Assemblies were regularly held to express views and vent emotions. A flagstaff or pole was raised within the Tree’s branches and when an ensign (usually yellow) was raised, the Sons of Liberty were to meet.
When the news of the Liberty Tree spread throughout the colonies, local patriots in each of the 13 colonies formed a Sons of Liberty group and identified a large tree or erected a pole to be used as a meeting place. In those times, holding an unauthorized assembly was dangerous business that carried threats of imprisonment or death. The casual appearance of a group chatting beneath a tree was much safer.
In the years leading up to the war, the British made the Liberty Tree an object of ridicule. British soldiers tarred and feathered a man named Thomas Ditson, and forced him to march in front of the tree. During the siege of Boston, about the last day of August 1775, a party of Loyalists led by Job Williams defiantly cut the tree down in an act of spite, knowing what it represented to the colonists, and used the tree for firewood. This act only further enraged the colonists. As resistance to the British grew, flags bearing a representation of the Liberty Tree were flown to symbolize the unwavering spirit of liberty. These flags were later a common sight during the battles of the American Revolution.