...in 1765, the British official charged with administering the hated Stamp Act was hung in effigy from an elm tree near Boston Common. A small group of merchants and master craftsmen had staged the prank, but soon a large crowd gathered to vent their anger at the Crown's interference with colonial affairs. Over the next weeks, the great elm emerged as the place in Boston for protest meetings. People of all classes including unskilled laborers, slaves, and women, who were normally excluded from official town meetings flocked to "Liberty Tree" to post notices, hear speeches, and hold outdoor meetings. The practice caught on, and with opposition to British rule mounting, Liberty Trees were soon found in many colonial towns.
In colonial Boston there was a surefire way to gather a crowd: hang an effigy, or dummy, of just about any authority figure. Effigies were closely associated with November 11th, known as Pope's Day, when Protestant laborers reenacted an oldEnglish custom hanging effigies of the Pope, setting bonfires, and brawling in the streets. In a fiercely anti-Catholic city, indulgent officials looked the other way while the lower classes used the excuse of an Old-World holiday for a bit of hooliganism.
But after Parliament passed the hated Stamp Act in the spring of 1765, colonial merchants and master craftsmen who bore the brunt of the new law used the rituals of Pope's Day to enlist the common people in political protest. They soon discovered that once incited, the mob had a mind of its own.
The Stamp Act was the first direct tax Parliament imposed on the American colonies. All paper items were required to carry a special stamp; the revenues from the stamp would be used to support the cost of administering the colonies. The impact of the Stamp Act was widely felt. No one could buy or sell land, write a will, become an apprentice, read a newspaper or almanac, or even play cards without paying the tax, but the heaviest burden fell on merchants, shopkeepers, and master artisans. They angrily denounced the act as "taxation without representation."
Two effigies were discovered at dawn on August 14th: one was a crude figure of Andrew Oliver, Boston's Stamp Act Commissioner and the brother-in-law of the colony's second highest ranking official, Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson. The other was a large boot, with a devil peeking out a reference to the Earl of Bute, the English lawmaker who was the architect of the Stamp Act. As a crowd began to gather, everyone expected the usual a day of mockery and high spirits.
But the men who organized the event had something more political in mind. They put on a carefully orchestrated bit of street theater, stopping each cart and "stamping" its goods. The large crowd included laboring men and women, apprentices, schoolboys, artisans, some merchants, and a few gentlemen disguised as artisans. At 5:00 pm the effigies were cut down, and a good-natured mock funeral procession passed the State House shouting "Liberty, Property and No Stamps." The marchers proceeded to the stamp office and pulled the little building down.
Crown officials quickly came to fear crowds that met at Liberty Tree, and the men who had engineered the events of August 14th soon learned that they, too, had something to fear. Out-of-door meetings were difficult to control. The line between liberty and license to riot was not easily maintained.
This was never clearer than on August 26th, when a bonfire was lit on King Street (today's State Street). A large and unruly crowd gathered. The object of their anger that night was Thomas Hutchinson, a man whose arrogance, ambition, power, and wealth made him one of the most unpopular men in Massachusetts. The mob attacked his house, one of the city's most elegant homes, where they proceeded to loot the contents and tear down walls and part of the roof, reducing the mansion to a mere shell. Several hundred people watched, without moving to stop the violence.
The next day, the men who had helped focus mob action on political targets were quick to distance themselves from the riot, which even the hotheaded Samuel Adams called the work of "a lawless unknown rabble." They sought to reassert control, but it was too late. The common folk had awakened to their political power.
British soldiers cut down Liberty Tree during their ten-month occupation of Boston in 1775. Today, a small plaque marks the site.
Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence, by Jack Tager (Northeastern University Press, 2001).
Boston's Workers: A Labor History, by James R. Green and Hugh Carter Donahue (Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1978).
Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, by Dick Hoerder (Academic Press, 1977).
"Liberty Tree: Made and Lost in America," by Alfred F. Young in Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (New York University Press, forthcoming).
Massachusetts: A Concise History, by Richard D. Brown and Jack Tager (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).