“For it’s a tall old tree and a strong old tree. And we are the sons, yes, we are the sons… the sons of liberty”. So went the catchy song that the tea-dumping Sons of Liberty sang loudly in the streets that night, all in perfect harmony and accompanied by mysterious instruments that came out of nowhere, in the 1957 Walt Disney film, Johnny Tremain.
The Liberty Tree still holds a revered place in many Americans’ heart, and it should. For ten years it had been the unofficial meeting place of the rebellious Bostonians, “collective activity by ordinary people” chafing against their perceived British injustice. Its symbolism still abounds in American culture. Consider Jefferson’s famous quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” And Samuel Adams talking of the “Fruit from the fair Tree of Liberty, planted by our worthy Predecessors, at the expense of their treasure…”
Today, however, if you want to visit the Liberty Tree site in Boston, you have to go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles or dodge Chinatown traffic in a busy intersection. But it wasn’t always like that…
The Liberty Tree Story
“Liberty Tree” was part of a grove of elm trees said to have been planted in 1646 by property owner and innkeeper Garrett Bourne. It was described in a 1765 poem as a “stately elm… whose lofty branches seem’d to touch the skies.” In 1765 the tree was closest to the street of two old elm trees behind a fence “enclosure” in the front yard of Deacon John Elliott, who lived far down on Orange Street (now Washington Street) toward the Boston neck.
The open space at the four corners of Washington, Essex, and Boylston Streets was once known as Hanover Square, from the royal house of Hanover, and sometimes as the Elm Neighborhood, from the magnificent elms with which it was environed. It was one of the finest of these that obtained the name of Liberty Tree.
On the morning of August 14, 1765, Bostonians passing by “Deacon Elliott’s tree” noticed a body hanging in effigy from one of the limbs. The body had a sign hanging from it with the simple initials “A.O.” People pretty much knew it meant Andrew Oliver, the new Stamp Tax collector in Boston. However, next to Oliver’s effigy, was a large boot. This not-so veiled reference was to the earl of Bute who colonists (incorrectly) thought had pushed the hated Stamp Tax through Parliament. But the best part yet was an image of the Devil sticking his head up out of Bute’s boot. Being displayed in the same company as the Devil and the earl of Bute was not good for Oliver that morning. The crowds continued to grow at the tree throughout the day, so Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson sent the sheriff of Suffolk County to cut the offending images down. The sheriff delegated it to his deputies, who reported back that they “could not do it without imminent danger to their lives.” The Loyall Nine, a small group of Boston Whigs and a precursor to the Sons of Liberty, had planned this effigy hanging the night before across the street from the tree at Thomas Chase’s distillery. So alcohol (specifically rum punch) may have been involved in the creation of what would become known as the Liberty Tree. But more significantly, the first organized show of opposition against British rule took place that day at the Liberty Tree.
By the evening of that first day, the now-really- worked-up crowd left the Liberty Tree and went to Oliver’s Stamp Tax office on Kilby Street and completely dismantled it. Then the mob went to Oliver’s home and pretty much destroyed that also. Oliver got the message and decided to resign his new job. “The next day he made it known that he would not serve.” Oliver had wanted to quit at the Towne-House, the central office for official British doings, but the Loyall Nine insisted it be done at their home office – the Liberty Tree.
About a month after that encounter with Oliver, in fact on September 11, 1765, hundreds of Bostonians met under the branches of their new symbol for fighting tyranny. They nailed a copper plate to the tree trunk that bore the words, “Tree of Liberty”. The meeting area under the Liberty Tree also had a name. According to Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard in an intelligence letter to Lord Hillsborough, the area beneath the tree limbs of the Liberty Tree was called “Liberty-Hall” by the insolent provincials. An additional cause for Tory alarm was that other New England towns, and even cities as far away as Savannah, Georgia, were starting to adopt their own trees – with Boston’s Liberty Tree as their inspiration.
By 1768, the Liberty Tree and Liberty Hall were getting noticed with a level of curiosity even over in London. In the “Late Proceedings at Boston” section of The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, the column pronounced “A notification was posted up in diverse part of the town, requesting the sons of liberty to meet at Liberty-Hall on Tuesday the 14th, at ten o’clock in the forenoon…Early on Tuesday morning the colours were flying on liberty-tree.”
On that particular day, August 14, 1768, Samuel Adams planned a third-anniversary celebration of Bostonians’ first protest against the Stamp Act. Never mind that the Stamp Act had been repealed in 1766. In 1768, Adams still wanted to keep the party alive, so guess where ground zero was for the events? “The day’s festivities began at the Liberty Tree, with the discharge of fourteen cannon at dawn, and escalated at noon with the singing of ‘The Liberty Song’.” No surprise, the next year a fourth anniversary of the Stamp Act protests was scheduled on August 14, 1769, by Sam Adams at – where else? – the Liberty Tree. Only this time, the revelers left the real tree and joined up with about 355 Sons of Liberty for some serious celebrating up on Dorchester at a new drinking location – the Liberty-Tree Tavern.
By 1770, the “venerable Liberty-elm” became the communication center for the early Boston rebels, much like a message board on a college campus. Commercial advertisements were even nailed to the tree trunk and the tree became a destination point for sales. William Billings noted on the title page of his New-England Psalm-Singer that additional copies of the hymnal could be purchased from “Deacon Elliott, under Liberty-Tree”. The Liberty Tree was also the designated gathering spot as, “The North and South End gangs paraded together to the Liberty Tree with effigies,” advertising their “abhorrence of POPERY,” a perceived connection between “the Pope [and the] Devil.”
But more than anything, the Liberty Tree remained the central point of assembly for angry American colonists. Simply said, “The rituals at the Liberty Tree were devices for maintaining continuity and preserving unity.” As late as November 1773, it was still being listed as an established meeting spot, as this news clip from the Boston Gazette indicates: “Boston November 3; Wednesday there was a numerous assembly of inhabitants of this and neighbouring towns, at Liberty Tree.”
It was also where Bostonians gathered to mourn their own. The funeral procession for eleven-year-old Christopher Seider, shot to death by customs service informer Ebenezer Richardson, is described in March 5, 1770, issue of the Boston Gazette, “The little Corpse was set down under the Tree of Liberty, from whence the procession began.” Following that event, a board was nailed to the Liberty Tree containing verses from the Bible describing that the wicked should be punished.
Then just a few weeks later, the funeral procession for the four victims of what would become known as the Boston Massacre followed a route that was sure to include the famous tree: from Faneuil Hall, south to circle the Liberty Tree, and then up to the Granary Burial Grounds. So, as the flames of the oncoming Revolutionary War were getting hot, the Liberty Tree in south Boston remained the headquarters and communications center for “the body of the people.”
Sometimes the people also sat in judgement of their own and the Liberty Tree served as the location of an ad hoc court. In a desperate letter to Lord Hillsborough from Governor Bernard, he exclaimed in astonishment about rebel courts, “We have seen justices attending at Liberty Tree.” In 1774, British customs officer John Malcolm was tarred, feathered and dragged “through the main street into King street, from thence to Liberty Tree.” At the Liberty Tree, he was forced to drink a tea toast to every Parliamentary politician and royal family member who could be thought of in an effort to encourage Malcolm to rethink his career path. The torturous process began to be known by Loyalists as undergoing “the Tree Ordeal.”
It appears that sometimes the Sons of Liberty had parade entourages swing out of the way south of town to loop around the Liberty Tree. That appeared to have established a parade route that both sides of the conflict used as needed for their purposes. John Trumbull describes the British Army’s punishment parade route that was parodying the Sons of Liberty’s Liberty Tree loop,
Early next morning they stripped him entirely naked, covered him with warm tar, and then with feathers, placed him on a cart, conducted him to the north end of town, then back to the south end, as far as Liberty-Tree; where the people began to collect in vast numbers…
Finally in 1775, when British troops were besieged in Boston after their disastrous skirmishes out in Lexington and Concord, Liberty Tree pay-back time had arrived. A group of British regulars aided by some remaining Tories cut the offending tree down. The New-England Chronicle covered the dastardly deed with all the Yankee verbal flourishes of the time:
Cambridge August 31 – The Enemies to Liberty and America, headed by Tom Gage, lately gave a notable Specimen of their Hatred of the very Name of Liberty. A Party of them, of whom one Job Williams was the Ringleader, a few Days since, repaired to a Tree at the South End of Boston, known by the Name of Liberty Tree, and, armed with Axes, etc. made a furious Attack upon it. After a long Spell of laughing and grinning, sweating, swearing and foaming, with Malice diabolical, they cut down a Tree because it bore the Name of Liberty.
It was reported that the Liberty Tree was so large that it yielded fourteen cords of firewood. It was also reported that since tree cutting safety procedures were not so stringent back then, a helper of the “foaming” Tory faction was killed by a huge falling limb from the Liberty Tree. Another version reported that the helper fell out of the tree and was killed. The victim’s name was never reported, which seems suspicious, but patriots ran with the story regardless that it was a divine sign that the tree went down fighting. No one could argue the fact however that the only thing remaining after the hatchet job was just a stump.
But hey, after the war, industrious Patriots did what they could to honor the former Liberty Tree with what they now proudly called “the Liberty Stump,” but it lacked the punch of the earlier name. A 1782 broadside advertised goods “to be sold near Liberty Stump.” On Marquis de Lafayette’s 1825 tour of the new United States, he stopped in Boston to lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument and was taken to the Liberty Stump. He reportedly was underwhelmed, but still uttered some memorable words. “La Fayette was much affected… in front of the stump of the Liberty Tree.” It just wasn’t working. Eventually urban sprawl enveloped what had been Deacon Elliott’s property and the Liberty Stump. Unlike sites like the Old State House, Faneuil Hall or the Old South Church, it was felt that the stump just wasn’t worth saving.
The Liberty Tree Site Today
If you would like to visit the site of the Liberty Tree in today’s Boston, you won’t find it on the popular Freedom Trail. Its location, even if there was a tree stump to see, would be off the beaten path as it sits a couple blocks east of the most southern tip of modern day Boston Common. The site of Deacon Elliott’s yard and fabled tree is in (of all places) Chinatown. One would take the Orange Line of the “T” (MBTA), get off at the “Chinatown” stop and walk up the stairs to the Washington Street entrance. Once outside, if you literally turn and look up the front of the building, you’ll see that the premises (630 Washington Street) is part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. In the front third floor window, you’ll see a bas-relief plaque of a tree… the Liberty Tree. The words below the tree say, “Sons of Liberty 1766; Independence of their Country 1776.” You’re standing at the corner where the Liberty Tree stood behind the fence of Deacon Elliott and where so much of the early part of the American Revolution took place; now just a busy intersection in downtown Boston with little notice to say what happened there.
The brick building at the corner of Washington and Essex streets you’re looking at was built in 1850, and today comprises a small historic district called The Liberty Tree District. The area and Liberty Tree Building have been on the National Register of Historic Places for thirty-five years. But that was following some civic and political intervention.
In 1966, a history-loving rookie reporter for the Boston Herald named Ronald Kessler walked to the Liberty Tree site and found the same bas-relief plaque, originally commissioned by Sears, in the same window as it appears today. But he found the brick building in much the same shape as the neighborhood – seedy, run down, and dangerous. In October 1966, he began a series of articles about the Liberty Tree and its importance in those early days of unrest in Boston. He appealed to Massachusetts Governor John Volpe to get involved. After visiting the site, Gov. Volpe “promised to create a park with monuments to let Americans know about the history of the Liberty Tree.” However, reportedly because of so many buried utilities in that area, the park idea had to be scrapped. Instead a marker was embedded into the brickwork in the traffic island across from the Liberty Tree window. But now a seedling of hope has again been planted by the City of Boston, and “Liberty Tree Plaza” may break ground by fall 2015 or spring 2016 – weather permitting, of course!
National historic sites are often in danger of destruction. But a living entity, such as an elm tree, is particularly vulnerable to forces such as, well, Dutch elm disease, droughts, ice-snow-wind storms, insects, root starvation from urban growth, and just plain age-related collapse. So the fact that no tree can be found on the site of Boston’s Liberty Tree shouldn’t alarm history lovers. But completely forgetting about the Liberty Tree’s story would be its worst epitaph. As the Marquis de Lafayette said in 1825 standing in front of the Liberty Stump, “the world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree, so famous in your annals.” But watch out for that car, Marquis!
 “The Liberty Tree” (Wonderland Music, BMI, 1956) music by George Bruns with lyrics by Tom Blackburn for the soundtrack to Disney’s film Johnny Tremain. Disney trivia controversy exists over whether the mob sings the lyrics as an “oak tree” or an “old tree.” Since the original Liberty Tree was an elm tree and known to be an elm tree when Disney’s writers were researching the script story, perhaps the proponents of “old tree” win out. Esther Forbes never states in her popular 1943 book of the same name whether the tree was an oak or elm. The Disney trivia “oak tree” proponents would counter that the large living Liberty Tree in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World Resort is a Southern live oak tree. But then, that large oak tree was on the Disney Kissimmee land when they bought it and was simply uprooted and moved to its Liberty Square location. The controversy rages on. There is no controversy however of the goof in the film: the Liberty Tree built in the studio soundstage is shown with leaves. Since the real tea dumping event was in December, the tree would have no leaves. But it’s just more dramatic with leaves.
 Alfred F. Young, Liberty tree: ordinary people and the American Revolution (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 4.
 Thomas Jefferson to William S, Smith, Nov. 13, 1787, Paris; in Jean M. Yarbrough, The Essential Jefferson (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 167.
 Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams: 1770-1773 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906), 2:372.
 Thomas J. Campanella, Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2003), 34.
 Oscar Wegelin, ed. Early American Poetry: A Compilation of the Titles of Volumes of Verse and Broadsides Written by Writers Born or Residing in North America, and Issued During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Vol. 1, (1903), 69; “Liberty, Property and No Excise: A Poem Compos’d On Occasion of the Sight seen on the Great Trees, (so called) in Boston, New-England, on the 14th of August, 1765. Printed in the Year, 1765. (Price 6 Cop.) 12mo. Pp.  4-8.” https://books.google.com/books?id=jPIUAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA69&dq=Liberty,+Property+and+No+Excise:+A+Poem&hl=en&sa=X&ei=m6YVVc3zDYyogwSe5oE4&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Liberty%20tree&f=false (accessed March 27, 2015).
 Samuel Adams Drake, Old Landmarks and Historic Parsonages of Boston (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1873), 397. (Drake wrote comments about Liberty Tree over a century past the actual events, so the words were not a contemporary memory of Drake; just romantic musing on his part).
 Samuel Adams Drake, Old Landmarks, 396. (See cautionary comment in end note 7).
 John Rowe, Diary, August 14, 1766, Massachusetts Historical Society; David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 21.
 Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, 20.
 Ira Stoll, Samuel Adams – A Life (New York: Free Press, 2008), 41.
 “The distillery and the elm that became known as the Liberty Tree were both in Hanover Square.” Stoll, Samuel Adams, 41.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Liberty Tree: A Genealogy”, The New England Quarterly, December 1952, 437.
 Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, 22.
 Governor Bernard to the Earl of Hillsborough, June 16, 1768 (on page 25) at https://books.google.com/books?id=hJYBAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Liberty+Tree&hl=en&sa=X&ei=MGTZVO78NMTqgwT814HQBg&ved=0CGAQ6AEwCThG#v=onepage&q=Liberty%20Tree&f=false The letter speaks of the Sons of Liberty who were called to assemble at Liberty-Hall under the Liberty-Tree. Bernard specifically says, “… has obtained the Name of Liberty-Tree, as the Ground under it has that of Liberty-Hall.” Adding to that assumption is this statement, “The ground around the tree had become sacred soil, and was designated as Liberty Hall.” Frederick Fitch Hassam, Liberty tree, Liberty hall, 1775, Lafayette and loyalty! (Boston, 1891), 1; Google-digitized, Public Domain; original resides at University of Michigan. There is some speculation however that “Liberty Hall” was actually a tavern next to the Liberty Tree property. Consider this issue of the Boston Gazette of August 18, 1766: “At the Hour of XII they convened at the sacred Tree of Liberty, every Bosom dilating with Joy, and every Eye sparkling with Satisfaction…The Company then retired to the Hall of Liberty, adjacent to the Tree, and drank the following loyal Toasts…” The Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, No. 594, August 18, 1766, bottom of third column of page 2; The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr; http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/1/sequence/482 (accessed March 6, 2015). In yet another reference, Thomas Chase’s distillery, across the street from Liberty Tree, was referred to as Liberty Hall.
 Isaac Kimber, Edward Kimber, ed’s., The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 37 for the Year 1768, 422. This article was a pick-up from June 20, 1768 issue of The Boston Gazette.
 Stoll, Samuel Adams, 69.
 Boston Chronicle, 22 May 1769; Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, 23.
 “The New-England Psalm-Singer, 1770,” American Antiquarian Society, http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Inventories/Revere/psalmsinger.pdf (accessed March 25, 2015).
 Stoll, Samuel Adams, 49.
 Stoll, Samuel Adams, 49; The Boston Post-Boy and Advertiser, November 11, 1765.
 Stoll, Samuel Adams, 49.
 Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, 27.
 Boston Gazette and Country Journal, No. 970, Monday, November 8, 1773, top left column of page 2; The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr; http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/4/sequence/472 (accessed March 6, 2015).
 Stoll, Samuel Adams, 81.
 Cushing, ed., The Writings of Samuel Adams, 150.
 Governor Bernard to the Earl of Hillsborough, Nov. 14, 1768, at https://books.google.com/books?id=j3NbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA23&dq=Liberty+Tree&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0mzZVIWAFbSSsQTcpILQAQ&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAjiqAQ#v=onepage&q=Liberty%20Tree&f=false
 John Almon, A Collection of Interesting, Authentic Papers – Relative to the Dispute between Great Britain and America, (London: J. Almon, 1777; reprint Bedford, MA: Applewood Books), 254.
 Peter Oliver, “Origins and Progress of the American Rebellion to the Year 1776”, Gay Transcripts, Massachusetts Historical Society; Schlesinger, “Liberty Tree”, 438; Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, 28.
 John Trumbull, The Political Works of John Trumbull, LL. D. and Memoir (Hartford: Samuel G. Goodrich, 1820), 56. Passage is from Trumbull’s poem “M’Fingal” published within this compilation. The infraction Trumbull was describing was “a parade by the 47th Regiment punishing a man from Billerica for trying to buy soldiers’ muskets in early 1775”. per. J. L. Bell, March 27, 2015.
 The New-England Chronicle or the Essex Gazette, Number 370, August 24-31, 1775; middle column of page 3; The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr; http://www.masshist.org/dorr/volume/4/sequence/878 In the precise index annotations that Harbottle Dorr made on almost all of his newspapers, he has inscribed a “(1)“ to both listings of the noun “Liberty Tree” in this story. At the far lower right of this newspaper page, he has written: “(1) see index, Vol. 1. under Liberty Tree.” Dorr was really organized.
Jerome V.C. Smith, M.D., ed., The Boston News-letter: And City Record, Volume 1, (Jan.-July 1826), 19. Regarding the death from chopping down the tree, “Suspiciously, no sources inside the besieged town reported this death, and no name is attached to the story”. per. J. L. Bell, March 27, 2015.
 Dirk Hoerder, Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765-80 – Studies in social discontinuity (New York: Academic Press, Inc. 1977), 209; Smith, Boston News-letter, 19.
 Hoerder, Crowd Action, 209.
 Hassam, Liberty tree, 3.
 “America Must Remember Boston’s Liberty Tree” http://www.newsmax.com/RonaldKessler/America-Boston-Liberty-Tree/2011/10/03/id/413067/ (accessed March 19, 2015).
 According to J.L. Bell’s April 8, 2007 blog article “Adding Liberty Tree Site to the Freedom Trail?”: “Plans for expanding Liberty Tree Park have been in the air since 1974…” http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2007/04/adding-liberty-tree-site-to-freedom.html (accessed March 22, 2015).
 In an email to this author on March 25, 2015, Allison Perlman, project manager for Boston Parks and Recreation Department gave this very promising status report, “Improvements to Liberty Tree Plaza are currently in the Construction Documents phase. Parks anticipates the project will start construction Fall 2015/ Spring 2016.” She cautioned, however, that all things are weather dependent! But it does indeed sound hopeful.
 The Freedom Trail Foundation, “Liberty Tree, by Matthew Wilding”, http://www.thefreedomtrail.org/educational-resources/article-liberty-tree.shtml (accessed March 22, 2015).