Who were those “Sons of Liberty”? How did they get started and what, exactly, were they up to in the years preceeding the American Revolution? Did their actions attract more people to the rebel cause or turn them away? This very question would split the NY Liberty Boys into two camps, their leaders sworn enemies! Let’s see how it all happened.
Origins of the NY Sons of Liberty
I always thought, and this is the origin story I tell on the Revolutionary Era Walking Tour, that the Sons of Liberty got their start in 1765 with the Committees of Correspondence. The committees formed as a protest against the Stamp Act and were the originators of the slogan “No Taxation Without Representation”. They achieved what everyone on both sides of the Atlantic thought to be impossible: they united thirteen competitive, bickering colonies against England. That lead to a boycott of English trade and the repeal of the odious Stamp Act the following year in 1766.
But as a New Yorker it always bugged me that everyone said the Sons of Liberty got their start in Boston (because, EVERYTHING important happens in NYC first). And then I found Henry B. Dawson’s wonderful speech to the NY Historical Society in 1859. In it he shows conclusively, and without a doubt, that the Boys got their start in New York in 1735 during the famous trial of the printer John Peter Zenger. (The OJ Trial of its day.) AND, the first organized protests against the Stamp Act were in NYC. If you’d like to read it, head over to my Facebook Group Secrets of the American Revolution with Karen Q where you will find the full document. (If you don’t use FB, email me and I’ll send you a link for downloading.)
The Liberty Boys didn’t go away after the Stamp Act. King George III and the Parliament gave them many more things to protest, like the Quartering Act, The Declaratory Acts, The Tea Act, The Intolerable Acts and more. They got bigger, louder and more controversial
NY Sons of Liberty
(English propaganda depicts the Dutch in the back row with the pointed hats and the Scots in the front row, drunk and nearly passed out.)
Punishment of Loyalists
It eventually became dangerous to speak out publicly in favor of the Crown or the Parliament. The Sons of Liberty passed out handbills, wrote articles in the papers and issued broadsides against their rivals. When that wasn’t enough they started hanging Loyalists (Tories) up on the Liberty Pole that stood on the Commons (today’s City Hall Park).
When Reverend Myles Cooper, the President of Kings College (today’s Columbia University), wrote a pamphlet in favor of the King’s actions, the Liberty Boys decided it was time to hang HIM from the Liberty Pole. Alexander Hamilton, a student at Kings College at the time, heard from his friend in the Sons of Liberty, Hercules Mulligan, that a crowd of nearly one hundred men were on their way up the Broad Way to get Rev. Cooper. Hamilton, generally sympathetic to the cause, stopped them when they reached the school.
Hamilton realized that this behavior was not helping the rebellion but hurting it. “It turns away the very people who might otherwise be attracted to our cause,” he argued with them. Well, while the crowd was stopped there, debating the merits of their activities with Hamilton, Rev. Cooper took advantage of the opportunity to leap from a window. He ran to the shore of the Hudson River and either sprinted South along the Hudson riverbank or rowed himself in a boat to Fort George (whichever version you like), where he sought protection until it was safe to return to school.
My personal favorite antic of the Sons of Liberty was when they hung an effigy of the Tory printer, James Rivington, in Brunswick, New Jersey. Rivington covered the story of his hanging on the front page of his paper, the New-York Gazetteer, in hilarious, insulting fashion. He let loose with a barrage of insults calling them “dregs of the city”, “denizens of the lower classes”, “pediculus” (lice infested) “bacchanalians” (naked nature worshippers), who were “inebriated” on “cheap, new England rum”.
When the Boys came to his shop he hid in his chimney until they left. A few months later they were back. They wrecked Rivington’s printing press, kidnapped him and threw him in jail in Connecticut. This caused John Jay, representing NY at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to address their behavior in a letter. Jay admonished them that “it was a sad day for all New Yorkers” that men calling themselves “sons of liberty” had kidnapped and imprisoned a free man. We must have “rule of law” he told them and ordered them to “restore” James Rivington. They released him. Rivington eventually returned to NYC and became the Crown’s official printer during the Revolutionary War and a spy for General Washington!
The Leadership Splits
Debate over tactics eventually split the leadership of the NY Sons of Liberty. Alexander McDougall and John Lamb disavowed violence and lead their group in loud, peaceful protests and political activity. Isaac Sears continued leading the violent faction of the group (like the attack on Rivington) and was known as “King Sears” for his ability to whip his followers into a violent mob. The three men couldn’t even sit in the same tavern without insults flying between their factions, sometimes escalating into violence.
Alexander McDougall served as a Major General in the Continental Army and is buried at the Presbyterian Church at 5th Avenue and 12th Street in NYC.
John Lamb served as a Brigadier General and artillery commander in the Continental Army and is buried in Trinity Church Graveyard in NYC.
Isaac Sears moved to Boston in 1777 and became wealthy operating as a privateer during the war. He returned to NYC after the war and quickly fell out of favor with the residents when he used a financial scam to take advantage of returning soldiers. He lost all of his wealth in risky investments. Sears died in Canton, China, while serving as crew on a cargo ship.
Graves of Alexander McDougall and John Lamb
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