The Seed from which the Sons of Liberty Grew

Prewar Politics (<1775)

December 8, 2014
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

On March 9, 1764, George Grenville proposed a stamp tax in a speech to Parliament; its purpose was to reduce the cost of maintaining 10,000 garrisoned soldiers in North America. Grenville claimed it would be similar to the one administered in England in 1694.[1]

Eleven months later, on February 17, the Act was passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 205 to 49; on March 8, it passed in the House Lords unanimously; and on March 22, it was given Royal Assent. It was to become effective November 1.[2]

The Stamp Act caused both anger and resentment in the colonies – not so much because of its imposition of a tax, but rather because of its’ manner of enactment and means of enforcement. The colonists believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen.

In Boston a group of men formed a ‘social club’. Their purpose however was more than social, it was to formulate and organize a response to the Stamp Act when news of its passage reached Massachusetts.

They called themselves the “Loyal Nine.” They were respectable merchants and tradesmen; but not the most prominent citizens of the city. They were unassuming, avoided undue publicity, and operated in complete secrecy. They were John Avery, a distiller; Henry Bass, a merchant and Samuel Adam’s cousin; Thomas Chase, a distiller; Stephen Cleverly, a brazier (a person who worked with brass); Thomas Crafts, a painter; Benjamin Edes, owner of the Boston Gazette; John Smith, a brazier; George Trott, a jeweler; and Henry Welles, a shipowner.[3] Some records show Joseph Field, a shipmaster, as a member, but there is some question.

The Loyal Nine met in one of two locations; either in “a small compting Room in Chase and Speakman’s Distillery”[4] or under the foliage of a large elm tree in nearby Hanover Square. The tree would soon become known as the “Liberty Tree.” It would serve for the next ten years as a meeting place for speeches and a staging area for protests and demonstrations.

News the Act’s passage reached Boston in May. Knowing they were going to need help organizing a resistance movement, the Loyal Nine turned to Ebenezer Mackintosh and his mob of rabble-rousers, known as the South Enders. They “managed” most activities in the south part of the city. Inciting public disturbance was not foreign to them. Somehow the Loyal Nine convinced Mackintosh to put aside his local quarrels with Henry Swift and the North Enders and direct their strength against the Stamp Act. It may have been related to an incident that occurred on August 12. Samuel Adams, one of the city’s tax collectors and strongly associated with the Loyal Nine, had sworn out a warrant for unpaid taxes against Mackintosh and then suddenly dropped the matter. Was “an arrangement” arrived at?

As the sun rose on August 14, the citizens of Boston were greeted by

“something so Rair as to draw the attention of almost the whole Town – it was no less than the Effigie of the Honourable Stamp Master of [the] Province hanging on one of the great Trees at the south end directly over the main street – behind him was a Boot hung up with the Devil Crawling out, with the Pitchfork in his hand, on the Effigie’s Right arm was writ and sew’d on the letters AO [Andrew Oliver] – On his left arm was wrote these words ‘It’s a glorious to See a stamp-man hanging on a Tree’ … This Effigie hung in this manner alday … the mob … took the Image down, after the performance of some Cerimonies. It was brought through the main street to near Olivers Dock, and in less than half an hour laid it even with the ground then took timbers of the house and caryd ‘em up on Fort Hill where they stamped the Image & timber & made a bonfire – the fuel faild. – they Immediately fell upon the stamp Masters Garden fence, took it up, stampd it and burnt it … Not contented with this they proceeded to his Coach house took off the doars, stampd ‘em & burnt ‘em. – While they was doing this, the Sheriff began to read the proclamation for the mob to withdraw.”[5]

This was the first, large-scale action in Boston against the Stamp Act and, more specifically, a Stamp Master. It was well planned, directed at a specific target and executed accordingly. The Loyal Nine’s rationale was simple: without Stamp Masters, the Act could not go into effect. John Dickinson said it was “the most effectual and most decent Method of preventing the Execution of a Statute, that strikes the Axe into the Root of the Tree.”[6]

Unfortunately, on August 26, “… persons disguised and armed with clubs and sticks collect[ed] in King Street … they hurr[ied] away to [Lt. Governor Thomas] Hutchinson’s house with the rage of madmen. He sen[t] off his children; bar[red] his doors and windows, and meant to remain but [was] soon under the necessity of withdrawing, first to one house, then to another, where he continued till four in the morning.”[7] One of the best houses in the province was completely in ruins, nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors. The plate, family pictures, most of the furniture, and wearing apparel, about £900 sterling in money, and the manuscripts and books which Governor Hutchinson had been 30 years collecting, beside many public papers in his custody, were either carried off or destroyed.[8] The evening’s destruction was not directed by the Loyal Nine. They had set strict boundaries regarding how far violence could go and on this evening, those boundaries had been crossed. They repudiated the ransacking of Hutchinson’s house. In an article in the Boston Gazette on September 2, it was stated, “In some extraordinary Cases the Cause of Liberty requires an extraordinary Spirit to support it … [the actions of the two evenings proceeded] from different Motives, as their conduct was evidently different … The pulling down Houses and robbing Persons … when any suppos’d Injuries can be redress’d by Law [was] utterly inconsistent with the first Principles of Government, and subversive of the glorious Cause.”[9] Bernard Bailyn believes it was on this night that “Force had been introduced into the Revolutionary movement in a form long familiar but now newly empowered to widely shared principles and beliefs. It would never thereafter be absent.”[10]This is not to say that incidents of protest had not been occurring in other cities and towns from Halifax to Charleston, but now force had been introduced as a tool of the masses.

On August 26, Andrew Oliver informed his fellow Stamp Master, Jared Ingersoll of Connecticut, his intention to resign from his office,

“Sir: The News Papers will sufficiently inform you of the Abuse I have met with. I am therefore only to acquaint you in short, that after having stood the attack for 36 hours – a single man against a whole People, the Government not being able to afford me any help during that whole time, I was persuaded to yield, in order to prevent what was coming in the night; and as I happened to give out in writing the terms of Capitulation, I send you a copy of them.”[11]

Four days later, Hutchinson wrote to Richard Jackson, “The encouragers of the first mob never intended matters should go to this length and the people in general express the utmost detestation of this unparalled outrage.”[12]

On November 1, the day that enforcement of the Stamp Act was to begin, there appeared in a Boston newspaper a caricature by John Singleton Copley, entitled, “The Deplorable State of America.” The “cartoon” expressed the emotions of the citizens of Boston who felt threatened by the revenue measure. Some of the actors in it were Minerva, Britannia, Mercury, an American Indian Princess, and Liberty; some of the images were a

“Flying Britannia, leaving behind fragments of Magna Charta, holding out Pandora’s Box to America, saying, ‘Take it Daughter its only the S—p A-t;’ America, appealing to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, begs her to shield her, as Liberty lies dying at America’s feet; the asp that stings Liberty creeps out of a thistle, symbolic of Scotland and the Scotch influence around the throne; Loyalty, holding the crown and leaning against the Tree of Liberty, sighs that she fears she will lose her support; above them flies a figure representing France, who uses gold to influence Lord Bute, a boot in the sky whose rays seem like marionette strings holding Britannia; in the left background one well-dressed gentleman remarks that they will lose 500 pounds per year, and another comments, ‘Who would not sell their country for so large a sum;’ in their vicinity are … gallows labeled ‘Fit Entertainment for St—p M-n;’ and one man leaning over the grave asks, ‘Will you resign,’ and a voice answers from within the grave, ‘Yes, yes, I will.’”[13]

On November 5, the citizens of Boston were greeted by an unusual scene – Ebenezer Mackintosh, Captain of the South Enders, and Henry Swift, Captain of the North Enders, two bitter rivals, were leading their men side-by-side down the streets of Boston. These were two mobs that had gone at each other with clubs and knives on Guy Fawkes Day for as long as anyone could remember. The citizens were amazed and confused – what had happened? The answer is the “Union Feast.” Samuel Adams with the assistance of John Hancock organized a series of dinners the night before and encouraged “all classes of men,” meaning the two mobs, to share a meal together. Some of he Loyal Nine were present and “with Heart and Hands in flowing Bowls and bumping Glasses,”[14] the Sons of Liberty were born!

In the evening of December 16, Andrew Oliver received a notice from the Sons of Liberty that his presence was requested at the Liberty Tree the next day to publicly resign his office of Stamp Master. The letter ended with the following caveat: “Provided you comply with the above, you shall be treated with the greatest Politeness and Humanity. If not …” The next morning he sent for his friend, John Avery; he hoped that he would act as an intermediary between himself and the Sons of Liberty. Avery told him that it was too late – that the effigies were already prepared. Oliver then offered to resign at the courthouse, but was told that would not be acceptable. Shortly before noon Ebenezer Mackintosh appeared at his door; his charge was to escort Oliver through the streets of Boston to the Liberty Tree. Because there was a heavy rain, Oliver was permitted to read his resignation from an upper window of a house next to the Liberty tree. Henry Bass described the Loyal Nine’s involvement in the day:

“On seeing Messrs. Edes & Gill last mondays Paper, the Loyall Nine repair’d the same Evg. [December 16] to Liberty Hall, in order to Consult what further should be done respecting Mr. Oliver’s Resignation, as what had been done heretofore, we tho’t not Conclusive & upon some little time debating we apprehended it would be most Satisfactory to the Publick to send a Letter to desire him to appear under Liberty Tree at 12 oClock on Tuesday, to make a publick Resignation under Oath: the Copy of which the advertisement, his Message, Resignation & Oath you have Inclos’d. The whole affair transacted by the Loyall Nine in writing the Letter, getting the Advertisements Printed, which were all done after 12 oClock Monday night, the advertisements Pasted up to the amount of a hundred was all done from 9 to 3 oClock.”[15]

Messrs. Crafts and Chase gave John Adams a similar account:

“[They] gave me a particular Account of the Proceedings of the Sons of Liberty on Tuesday last in prevailing on Mr. Oliver to renounce his office of Distributor of Stamps, by a Declaration under his Hand, and under the very Tree of Liberty, nay under the very Limb where he had been hanged in Effigy, Aug. 14 , 1765. Their absolute Requisition of an Oath, and under that Tree, were Circumstances, extremely humiliating and mortifying, as Punishment for his receiving a Deputation to be a Distributor after his pretended Resignation, and for his faint and indirect Declaration in the News Papers last Monday.”[16]

On the evening of January 15, 1766, John Adams was invited by Crafts and Trott to spend an evening with them and the rest of the Loyal Nine at the distillery.

“I went, and was civilly and respectfully treated, by all Present. We had Punch, Wine, Pipes and Tobacco, Bisquit and Cheese etc… I heard nothing but such Conversation as passes at all Clubs among Gentlemen about the Times. No Plots, no Machinations. They chose a Committee to make Preparations for grand Rejoicings upon the Arrival of the News of a Repeal of the Stamp Act, and I heard afterwards they are to have such Illuminations, Bonfires, Piramids, Obelisks, such grand Exhibitions, and such Fireworks, as were never before seen in America.”[17]

One month later, Adams was again invited by Thomas Crafts a to attend the Monday gathering, but this time instead of writing “with the Loyal Nine” he wrote “the Sons of Liberty.”

“Yesterday I wrote you a few lines, by Dr Tufts, informing you the Sons of Liberty desired your company at Boston … on Monday next, because they want you to write those inscriptions that I mentioned to you when last at Boston; one in favor of Liberty, not forgetting the true-born sons, and another with encomiums on King George, expressive of our loyalty …P.S. Destroy this after reading it.”[18]

On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. “In this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, that from and after the first day of May, one thousand seven hundred and sixty-six, the above-mentioned Act, and the several matters and things therein contained, shall be, and is and are hereby repealed and made void to all intents and purposes whatsoever.”[19] The Loyal Nine had fulfilled their purpose.

Three years later the group, less Joseph Field and Henry Welles, would attend the largest social gathering held by the Sons of Liberty. At 11:00 a. m. they met at the Liberty Tree and offered 14 toasts, then repaired to Dorchester where they

“dined with 350 Sons of Liberty at [Lemuel] Robinsons, the Sign of Liberty Tree … We had two Tables laid in the open Field by the Barn, with between 300 and 400 Plates, and an Awing of Sail Cloth overhead, and should have spent a most agreeable Day had not the Rain made some Abatement in our Pleasures. After Dinner was over and the Toasts drunk… we [sang] the Liberty Song. … This is cultivating the Sensations of Freedom. There was a large Collection of good Company. Otis and Adams are politick, in promoting these Festivals, for they tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty. They render the People fond of their Leaders in the Cause, and averse and bitter against all opposers.”[20]

The account in the Boston Gazette of August 21 gave the final toast as “Strong Halters, Firm Blocks, and Sharp Axes to all such as deserve either.”[21]

On November 27, 1773, the first of three ships carrying chests of tea arrived in Boston harbor. The North-End Caucus met at the Green Dragon Tavern and organized night patrols along the wharf to keep watch of the ships; others organized a series of meetings in the Old South Meetinghouse to discuss what to do with the tea. The patrols were in existence for nineteen days. Among those on duty on November 29 were Henry Bass, Thomas Chase, and Benjamin Edes.[22]

Sixty-three years later, Peter Edes, the son of Benjamin Edes, wrote the following in a letter to his grandson:

“I recollect perfectly well that, in the afternoon preceding … the destruction of the tea, a number of gentlemen met in the parlor of my father’s house, how many I cannot say … I was not admitted into their presence … They remained in the house till dark, I suppose to disguise themselves like Indians, when they left the house and proceeded to the wharves where the vessels lay. After they left the room I went into it, but my father was not there.”[23]

Benjamin Edes (and Thomas Chase) had left to participate in the Boston Tea Party.[24]

/// Featured Image at Top: The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print referring to the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. Source: Library of Congress


[1] “5 & 6 William III & Mary II c. 21,” in Acts of the Parliament of England, prior to 1707.

[2] Carl Becker, The Eve of the Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1918), 48.

[3] L. H. Butterfield ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. I, Diary 1755 -1770 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961) 294.

[4] Butterfield ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 294.

[5] “Letter from Cyrus Baldwin to Laommi Baldwin, 15 August 1765,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Miscellaneous Bound Manuscripts.

[6] Paul Leicester Ford,. ed., “John Dickinson’s Anti-Stamp Broadside,” November 1765, in “The Writings of John Dickinson: I, Political Writings, 1764-1774,” Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, XIV (Philadelphia, 1895), 201-5.

[7]William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America, Vol. I (London: Charles Dilly Co.,

1787), 175-77.

[8] Abiel Holmes, Annals of America (Cambridge, MA, 1829), II, 135-136.

[9] Boston Gazette, September 2, 1765;Eliot to Hollis, August 27, 1765, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 4th Series, Vol. IV, 406-07.

[10] Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution 1750-1776, Vol. I (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), 585.

[11] Andrew Oliver to Jared Ingersoll, Esq., 26 August 1765, in Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society Vol. IX (New Haven, 1918), 328.

[12] Quoted by Edmund S. Morgan in his useful collection of documents, Prologue to RevolutionSources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764-1766 (Chapel Hill, 1959), 109.

[13] John Adams, Papers of John Adams, Vol. I (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), xi.

[14] “Francis Bernard to Thomas Pownall, November 6, 1765,” in Bernard Papers (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Library, Harvard University).

[15] Henry Bass to Samuel P. Savage, 19 December 1765, “Savage Papers,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 44 (Boston, 1910-1911), 888-89.

[16] Butterfield ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 265.

[17] Butterfield ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 294.

[18] Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, Col. II (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), 185-86.


[20] William Palfrey, “An Alphabetical List of the Sons of Liberty who din’d at Liberty Tree [Tavern], Dorchester,” Massachusetts Historical Society Online Collections; Butterfield ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 341.

[21] The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, Monday, August 21, 1769, in the Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Door (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society).

[22] Francis S. Drake, Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year 1773 …, An Introduction (Boston: A. O. Crane, 1884), 46.

[23] Letterfrom Peter Edes to his grandson, Benjamin C. Edes, dated February 16, 1836, in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 1871-1873, Vol. 12(Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1873), 174-75.

[24] Benjamin J. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), Appendix.


  • Nice article, thank you for the review of events taking place and for bringing up one of the more troubling aspects of the times.

    These actions by a few in which they threatened those not willing to bend to their wishes were clearly outside the scope of the law. I think many tend to disregard these violations and justify them in such a way as to put a legal gloss on the ensuing separation from Britain, of which the Declaration is yet another example of continued illegality.

    I am sure there are many that will disagree, but if one looks closely and considers that this was supposed to be a society founded on the rule of law (a long history I might add) and that these few sidestepped the inconveniences of petitioning taking that law into their own hands, then how does one escape the conclusion that the Revolution was based on an illegal foundation?

    Thomas Hutchinson was not far off in condemning those earlier actions and his insights are worthy of deep reflection by those of us today on the legal legitimacy of the country’s beginnings.

  • The timing of this piece is perfect, in light of current events in our country. Protests, peaceful and otherwise, are a cornerstone of its foundation and have continually brought about change in our society.

  • Heresy!!! You mean to tell me that someone other than Sam Adams had the ability to think for themselves? To oppose the Stamp Act on their own? That the Loyal Nine and the Sons of Liberty had a paternal origin in someone other than Sam Adams? Heresy, I say! How can so many 19th- and 20th-century writers be so wrong? Don’t you know that, as Voltaire wrote, “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” But, then again, heresy “is the perpetual New World, the unknown sea, toward which the brave all sail.” Fair winds and following seas, Bob.

    For those who don’t get sarcasm, I actually found this an informative and enjoyable article.

  • Mr Ruppert,

    Enjoyed your article – and share your interest in the Loyal Nine, but your article misstates the way John Adams referred to them.

    After excerpting the Adams diary entry of January 15, 1766, you excerpt a letter of the following February, stating, “this time instead of writing ‘with the Loyal Nine’ [Adams] wrote ‘the Sons of Liberty.'”

    However, in the January entry, Adams refers to them as “Sons of Liberty” – not “Loyal Nine,” and the February letter you excerpt is not from Adams, but to Adams – from suspected Loyal Nine member Thomas Crafts.

    The veil behind which the Nine operated definitely complicates their study and demands all the more attention to detail.

    (If it might make you feel any better, this is not the first time I have seen the exact same mistake.)

    J F Pennington

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