Monday, August 28, 2023

Rooted in Boston: The origins of a Revolutionary War symbol

The Liberty Tree, a popular symbol of resistance to British rule during the Colonial and Revolutionary War periods, has its roots in New England, specifically Boston, Massachusetts.

On August 14, 1765, a group of colonists in Boston, Massachusetts gathered under an elm tree on the corner of Essex and Orange Street with effigies in representing officials responsible for the Stamp Act. The group called themselves the Loyal Nine. Prior to their gathering under the tree, the Loyal Nine enlisted Ebenezer Macintosh, a shoemaker, to make the effigies. The effigies represented Andrew Oliver, who was chosen by King George III to enforce the Stamp Act in the colonies, and two ministers, the Earl of Bute and Lord George Grenville, who were considered responsible for creating the Stamp Act. 

Soon a mob gathered around the effigies led by Ebenezer Macintosh. The Loyal Nine began to “stamp” the mob’s belongings in mockery of the Stamp Act. At the end of the day, the effigies were removed by the mob and used in a mock funeral procession. One account written by Francis Bernard, the governor of Massachusetts, described the protestors beheading the effigy representing Andrew Oliver after parading it down the street in a coffin. According to Bernard, the mob’s actions culminated in the stamp office building being pulled down and the timber from it used for bonfire to burn the Andrew Oliver effigy. Bernard’s account also said Andrew Oliver narrowly escaped the stamp office as it was being ransacked. August 14, 1765 is considered by historians to be the first public protest against British rule.  It preceded the Boston Tea Party by eight years and the Pine Tree Riot by two years. 

After the events of August 14, 1765 the elm tree became the default meeting place for the Loyal Nine, who eventually became leaders of the Sons of Liberty.  Soon the tree was known as the Liberty Tree.  Ebenezer Macintosh was responsible so often for hanging effigies and gathering mobs around it that he was called the “Captain General of the Liberty Tree.” Eventually it became the regular meeting place of the Sons of Liberty. When the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, people gathered in celebration around the Liberty Tree. During the festivities a commemorative sign was nailed to the tree. It had the following words: “This tree was planted in the year 1646, and pruned by order of the Sons of Liberty, Feb. 14th, 1766.”

After 1766 the tree continued to be a political meeting place and a protest site. During the Liberty Riot of 1768 a mob dragged a British naval ship all the way from the Boston Harbor to the Liberty Tree to protest the seizure of John Hancock’s ship. There were many protests about the Tea Act of 1773 held there. In 1774 John Malcom, a Loyalist and customs official, was seized by mob and brought to the site of The Liberty Tree where he was promptly stripped to the waist, tarred and feathered, and forced to resign from his office. By 1775 The Liberty Tree in Boston became so renowned as a political meeting place and symbol, Thomas Paine was inspired to write a poem about it. The Liberty Tree in Boston inspired other towns and cities across the 13 colonies to designate their own liberty trees.

Planted in 1646, the Liberty Tree’s life was cut short during the Siege of Boston in 1775.  A party of British soldiers and Loyalists cut down the tree and used it to build a fire. After the British evacuated from Boston, a liberty pole was erected on August 14, 1776 near the stump of the Liberty Tree.  For many years after the Liberty Tree stump was a local landmark occasionally mentioned in newspapers but for the most part forgotten. Marquis de Lafayette visited Boston in 1825 and visited the stump, remarking, “The world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree, so famous in your annals.” When the stump was removed from its location is unclear, but it most likely would have been sometime between 1825 and the 1850s. The Massachusetts Historical Society has fragments of the Liberty Tree’s roots.

Fragments taken from the roots of the Liberty Tree. Object.
Digital Commonwealth, (accessed August 15, 2023).

In the 1850s a wooden plaque commemorating the Liberty Tree was placed on the exterior of the third floor of a building located on Essex Street and Washington Street (formerly Orange Street). The Liberty Tree plaque can still be viewed today across the street from Liberty Tree Plaza. In Liberty Tree Plaza an elm tree was planted to commemorate the original Liberty Tree. 

 Other known former locations of liberty trees in Massachusetts are in Acton and Quincy. 

The Acton Liberty Tree was thought to have been planted by Henry Sparks who had built a house on the property 1715. Eventually the house was purchased in 1755 by Simon Hunt, Junior. During the Revolutionary War an elm tree in the southern yard of Simon Hunt was chosen as Acton’s Liberty Tree. The Acton Liberty Tree died in 1925. Near its former location the Acton Peace Tree was planted in 1915 by schoolchildren where it still stands today next to the Simon Hunt Homestead. A sign on the maple tree reads: “The Peace Tree planted with due ceremony by the school children of Acton on Arbor Day 1915 as a stand-in for the Liberty Tree.” 

In Quincy, Massachusetts, a liberty tree was located near Brackett’s Tavern. Very little is known about the tree and the role it played in the community. An entry from John Adam’s diary dated May 4, 1766 contains details about its location and its status as a liberty tree: “I saw for the first Time, a likely young Button Wood Tree, lately planted, on the Triangle made by the Three Roads, by the House of Mr. James Brackett. The Tree is well set and well guarded and has on it, an Inscription ‘The Tree of Liberty,’ and ‘cursed is he, who cutts this Tree.’”  The Brackett’s Tavern Liberty Tree was located on a triangular patch of land where Hancock Street, Elm Street and Mechanic Street intersect. In 1959 the Quincy Granite Manufacturer’s Association placed a commemorative stone to mark the site. The City of Quincy also installed a sign designating the location where the tree once lived.   

Photo credit: Jessica Shrey

Emily Crawford
Technical Services Librarian