The Liberty Tree and the Stamp Act Crisis, 1765-1766
The people of Boston created the Liberty Tree during their town’s convulsive protest against the hated Stamp Act in August, 1765. A large elm located near Boston’s busiest street, the tree first came to notice on the morning of August 14, when effigies representing the two officials in Boston and London most hated for their association with the unpopular tax were found hanging from its boughs. Thousands of people turned out to view the figures during the day, and that evening the crowd staged a mock funeral. Thousands of “mourners” carried the effigies from the elm to the office of Andrew Oliver, the local official charged with enforcing the Stamp Act. They destroyed the building, while a smaller group ransacked Oliver’s nearby home, destroying the most visible signs of his wealth and standing.
Boston’s elm, now called the Liberty Tree, remained a focal point for popular protest throughout the Stamp Act crisis until finally on December 17, 1765, Oliver was forced to stand beneath the Liberty Tree to publicly resign his commission as the distributor of the stamps in Massachusetts. Crowd actions like that in Boston soon forced the resignation of stamp distributors throughout the colonies, rendering the Stamp Act unenforceable and leaving Parliament with litt
le choice but to repeal the measure. Boston’s spontaneous protest, which began under the Liberty Tree, had effected change at the highest levels of the British empire.
The Liberty Tree as a Site of Popular Protest and Debate
The power of collective action by ordinary people, so apparent in the events of 1765-1766, came to be linked to the Liberty Tree in the eyes of participants and observers alike. For this reason, the tree became the principal site of popular resistance in Boston by the people “out of doors” and remained so until 1775, when it was cut down by British soldiers. The Liberty Tree was the place where effigies were hung, warnings and calls to action were posted, and where a flag was hoisted as a signal for the people to assemble. The area under and around the tree became known as “Liberty Hall,” a public space where white male Bostonians without regard to property could take part in public life.
Because “Liberty Hall” was a more inclusive space than the Town House, where the colony’s elected representatives met to shape the official discourse of resistance to Britain, it was also a focal point for conflict and debate. All of Boston’s social classes were welcome under the Liberty Tree: the “better sort” (some 150 to 200 export-import merchants at the top of Boston’s economy and society as well as some of the more prominent lawyers and doctors); the “middling sort” (master artisans and shopkeepers); and the “lower sort” (artisans in the “inferior” trades, journeymen, apprentices, day-laborers, seamen, some of whom were African-American). These groups often had divergent goals and differed in their views on the proper role of ordinary people in public affairs. Merchants and the middling “Loyal Nine,” whose membership overlapped with the Sons of Liberty, did their best to flatter, steer, and fence in the leaders of the “lower sort,” including the shoemaker Ebenezer Mackintosh. Genteel leaders seemed constantly concerned to head off potentially explosive activity at the Liberty Tree. As a symbol but also a locus of Boston’s struggle, the tree empowered people who were either outside the political system or only at its edges. Many ordinary people felt they “owned” the tree.