J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Revolution References

The Journal of the American Revolution is running another weeklong series of questions for its contributors, including me. Monday’s question was “Which American Revolution book do you refer to most often (not to be confused with ‘favorite book’)? Why?”

Different people interpreted the question in different ways. Some folks wrote about the historic sources they study most often, such as the Cornwallis Papers, Peter Force’s American Archives, the Papers of George Washington, or more specific collections. In my case that might include the Boston Town Records published a century ago.

Others spotlighted one-volume histories of the war: John Ferling’s Almost A Miracle, Merrill Jensen’s The Founding of a Nation, Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, and The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by the Participants, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris.

Yet others named their favorite reference volumes: Mark M. Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Richard Ryerson and Gregory Fremont-Barnes’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War, and The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. For researching officers on the two sides, there are British Army Officers: Who Served in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 by Steven M. Baule and Stephen Gilbert and the venerable Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the American Revolution by Francis B. Heitman.

I interpreted the question that last way, but I realized that these days I usually don’t refer to any reference volume at all—I use Wikipedia to get the basics and then do my first followup through Google. Need to know the difference between Charles Lee the general and Charles Lee the Attorney-General? It’s just a few clicks and a little disambiguation away. I was pleased to see that a few of the folks commenting on the posting admitted to that same approach.

But I keep reading books as well, and over the next few days I’ll talk about some from the past year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Walking Tour and Colonial Comics in Cambridge, 20 Dec.

On Saturday, 20 December, I’ll sign copies of Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 at the Million Year Picnic comics shop in Harvard Square, along with the book’s main editor, Jason Rodriguez, and some of the other writers and artists contributing to this anthology of historical comics. The signing is from 3:00 to 5:00 P.M.

At 4:00, in conjunction with that event, I’ll lead a free walking tour of central Cambridge focusing on colonial sites for anyone who wants to come along. We’ll gather in the lower alcove of the Million Year Picnic’s building at 99 Mount Auburn Street.

The tour will include the location of the first printing press in America (subject of a story in Colonial Comics), the burying-ground that Cambridge established in 1635, and the house where Gen. George Washington first slept in town. Weather permitting, we’ll go as far afield as the Georgian mansion that Harvard keeps tucked inside one of its dorms and the mythical Washington Elm before ending up back at the Million Year Picnic.

Although Colonial Comics focuses on the first century of British settlement in America, most of the sites we’ll visit will date from the eighteenth century, and most of my stories will be about the Revolutionary period. That’s because of what survives, and what I know best. My goal is to point out some of the oldest things we see around Harvard Square every day.

And, of course, to sell books.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Caricature of a Tea Partier

Adam Colson (his family name was also spelled Collson, Coleson, and Coulson) was born in 1738. At that time his grandfather David was a Boston selectman. Adam followed his grandfather into leather-dressing, and he also became politically active.

Colson joined the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons in 1763. In 1766 the town meeting elected him as a “Clerk of the Market,” a beginner-level office. By 1773, he was also a member of the North End Caucus (and, reportedly, the “Long Room Club”).

Colson was in the second set of volunteers patrolling the wharves to make sure no East India Company tea was landed. Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s 1835 book Traits of the Tea-Party listed him among the men who destroyed that tea on 16 Dec 1773—the earliest such list to see print. Thatcher also wrote of that night’s meeting at Old South:
Some person or persons, in the galleries, (Mr. [William] Pierce thinks Adam Colson,) at this time cried out, with a loud voice, “Boston Harbor a tea-pot this night!”—“Hurra for Griffin’s Wharf!”—and so on.
For Colson to have gotten down from the gallery during a crowded meeting and onto a tea ship would have been a feat.

In 1774 Bostonians voted Colson to be the town’s Informer of Deer, a post he held for years, and the next year he was chosen to be a Warden. In 1779, with the town hurt by shortages and price jumps, he was made an Inspector of the Market. He appears to have served only briefly in the military, patrolling the town under Col. Jabez Hatch.

During these years Colson maintained his business selling leather goods in the South End under the “Sign of the Buck and Glove” near Liberty Tree. But he also bought real estate, opening an inn and what by 1788 he called the “Federal Stable.” In 1782 he hosted the future Marquis De Chastellux, who was making a trip through the new U.S. of A.

In Boston’s 1792 state election returns, Colson garnered 7 votes for lieutenant governor, coming in third. Samuel Adams with 686 was the clear winner, and merchant Thomas Russell with 17 was second. Yet Colson was still just a tradesman and landlord, not a gentleman (he didn’t get “Esq.” after his name in the official tally). That made his relative prominence notable. So what were his post-Revolutionary politics?

In 1795 the Rev. John Silvester John Gardiner (1765-1830), future rector of Trinity Church, published a book called Remarks on the Jacobiniad through the new Federal Orrery newspaper and then the printers Weld and Greenough. It was a biting, satirical, and not entirely coherent attack on the nascent Jeffersonian party in Boston. In particular, Gardiner lampooned Thomas Edwards, Benjamin Austin, Samuel Hewes, “Justice [John] Vinal,” and Colson. Judging by a legal report in the Columbian Centinel in 1791, Gardiner must have been carrying on that feud for years.

Remarks on the Jacobiniad portrayed Colson as an illiterate veteran of the Revolutionary struggle. At what must have been some expense, the book even included caricatures of those five leading “Jacobins,” allowing us to see a version of Adam Colson, above.

Colson died in 1798, not surviving to see his party take the Presidency and hold it for six terms. He left an estate worth nearly $17,000, including $10,000 of real estate on Washington Street in the South End.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Natural Protection against Counterfeiting

Sure, I’m intrigued by a mysterious box found under a government building filled with rare coins left by Freemasons, Revolutionaries, and Know-Nothings.

But the news story from last week about eighteenth-century money that really caught my interest was this discovery from Pennsylvania.

During the Seven Years’ War, Delaware issued a bunch of paper notes to circulate as currency. Benjamin Franklin and his business partner, David Hall, won the contract to produce those notes. To do so, they had to create a design that was distinctive and hard to counterfeit.

The Franklin and Hall shop gathered sage leaves, captured their vein patterns in plaster, and then used that plaster to create metal blocks that could print the leaf patterns in the center of each note. The twenty-shilling piece appears above. The result was a naturally intricate design that was hard to duplicate with available technology. Just to drive home the point, the printers added the words “To Counterfeit, is DEATH.”

Laws usually required the people who printed money to deliver the engraved plates to the government to ensure that neither they nor anyone else printed more without authorization. That’s how we have the copper plate that Paul Revere used to engrave his Boston Massacre image (actually Henry Pelham’s Boston Massacre image, cribbed): Revere used the other side of the plate to engrave currency for Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War and then handed in the piece of metal. It’s still property of the Massachusetts Archives.

As for Franklin and Hall, they would have had to turn over the metal plates of each unique leaf pattern (and perhaps the plaster molds as well). But eventually people lost track of them. They didn’t look like engravings of currency; they looked like pieces of metal with raised leaf patterns.

Recently the University of Connecticut historian Jessica Linker, who was actually at the Delaware County Institute of Science to study early female botanists, recognized that one such metal block with a leaf pattern wasn’t just a floral specimen. It matched Delaware’s 30-shilling piece. No similar printing block had been recognized before.

That artifact is now on loan to the Library Company of Philadelphia, which Franklin founded in 1731, as it prepares an exhibit about printing currency.

The same New York Times column that told that story also reports that in 2016 the Historical Society of Old Newbury will open an exhibit at Jacob Perkins’s engraving plant in Newburyport. Perkins developed a way to engraving on steel that was considered even harder to counterfeit. To tie everything together today, one of his earliest jobs was making the die for Massachusetts’s 1787 copper cent, one of the coins inside the State House time capsule.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What’s Inside the State House Time Capsule?

On 7 Aug 1855, workers were building an addition onto the Massachusetts State House and strengthening its foundation on Beacon Hill. They were surprised to find that the cornerstone in the building’s southeast corner  was damaged—and that something had been crudely cemented to it.

The workmen found “a few copper coins and two pieces of sheet lead loosely put together,” according to a Freemasons’ magazine. The silver plate laid down by Gov. Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in 1795 sat between those lead sheets, along with more coins. Those metal artifacts were “corroded with rust” but soon “restored to their original condition”—possibly with acid.

The managers of the construction projects quickly had the other side of the plate engraved with this text:
The Corner Stone of the Capitol having been removed in consequence of alterations and additions to the Building, The original deposit together with this inscription is replaced by the Most Worshipful Winslow Lewis, M.D., Grand Master and other Officers and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, in the presence of His Excellency, Henry J. Gardner, Governor of the Commonwealth, on the 11th day of August, 1855, A. L. 5855.
Instead of simply laying that plate on the ground again, the state government commissioned a “securely prepared metal box hermetically sealed.” The term “time capsule” hadn’t been coined yet, but that’s what they were making. Inside they placed the silver plate, the copper coins, and…some other things.

Only four days passed between when workers discovered the 1795 plate and coins and when they placed those things back inside the State House walls. There was no big public ceremony because the site was then a construction zone—only government officials attended. The original cornerstone was replaced with a granite block on a new foundation, and the metal box was placed inside a “newly hammered granite ashlar” on top of that block. This was the time capsule recently rediscovered during another repair process.

So what, besides the artifacts from 1795, might be in that box? The Freemason’s Monthly Magazine reported in detail on the 1855 developments, and it listed the contents.

First, there were the coins from 1795, showing the transition from state to federal currency with the adoption of the new Constitution:
  • “a Massachusetts cent, (commonly known as bearing an Indian on one side and an eagle on the other,) of the year 1787” [above]
  • “another of the year 1788 two half cents of the same currency and bearing the same dates”
  • “cents of the United States, coined in 1793, and 1794”
  • “New Jersey cent (Nova Caesarea,) of the year 1787”
  • “an old half penny of the time of George the Second
  • “a half dollar of the United States currency, 1795”
  • “half dime of the same currency and year”
  • “a pine tree shilling, of the currency established in Massachusetts in 1652”
  • “a copy of the small medal struck in England in 1794 in honor of Washington, bearing the following on the obverse, head and bust of Washington in regimentals, with the legend.—‘George Washington, born in Virginia, Feb. 11, 1732,’ the parallel lines, ‘General of the American Armies 1776. Resigned 1783. President of the United States 1789.’” [below]
To which the statesmen of 1855 added:
  • “The silver coins of the U. States currency of the present year”
  • “copper cents and half cents of the last four years”
  • “an impression of the State seal”
  • “the title page to the first volume of the newly printed Massachusetts Colony Records”
  • “morning papers of the day”
Sam Doran of Lexington found a newspaper article from 1855 snapping that Gov. Gardner, from the American or Know Nothing Party, had included “the Bee, the American Crusader, and two other Know Nothing sheets.” After all, this was the Massachusetts State House—there had to be a political complaint.

The time capsule was carefully removed by a Museum of Fine Arts preservation specialist, so soon we’ll know how accurate that list of objects is, and how well they’ve survived the last century and a half.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Under the Cornerstone of the State House

The big Boston historical news this week was the discovery of a time capsule sealed in the cornerstone of the State House, laid in 1795. Or rather, the rediscovery of the eighteenth-century artifacts inside that capsule because they were previously found in 1855.

But let’s start at the beginning. The first news reports, such as this C.N.N. dispatch referred to “a time capsule believed buried by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.” My first guess was that a whole bunch of prominent Bostonians had attended the cornerstone-laying in 1795 and journalists scanning the list of attendees simply pulled out the two men who had become brand names.

But no, Adams and Revere really were the two most prominent dignitaries at the event on Independence Day in 1795. Adams was seventy-two years old and the governor of Massachusetts, having succeeded John Hancock two years earlier. Revere, for his part, had recently become Grand Master of Massachusetts’s Freemasons. Even though few of those Masons were really masons, they participated in a lot of stone-laying then.

Other notables at the event included the Rev. Peter Thacher, chaplain of the state senate; architect Charles Bulfinch; and builder/politician Thomas Dawes. Fifteen white horses, representing the fifteen states then in the U.S. of A., drew the cornerstone through the streets and up to Beacon Hill.

The 8 July 1795 Columbian Centinel reported that Adams and Revere placed a silver plate under the stone which said:
This Corner Stone of a Building, intended for the use of the Legislature, and Executive Branches of Government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esq., Governor of said Commonwealth.

Assisted by the Most Worshipful Paul Revere, Gr. Master, And Right Worshipful William Scollay, Dp. G. Master, The Grand Wardens and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.

On the 4th day of July, AN. DOM., 1795. A. L. 5795.

Being the XXth Anniversary of American Independence.
Note that the twentieth anniversary of independence would actually come a year later.

The main speaker that day was a young lawyer named George Blake (1769-1841), whose speech was printed and sold by Benjamin Edes. A Jeffersonian, Blake spoke about how Royal Navy ships were once again preying on American crews. He went on to serve in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature and as U.S. Attorney for the district from 1802 to 1829.

Gov. Adams’s brief remarks on the new building included:
May the superstructure be raised even to the top stone without any untoward accident and remain permanent as the everlasting mountains. May the principles of our excellent Constitution founded in nature and in the rights of man, be ably defended here. And may the same principles be deeply engraven on the hearts of all citizens and there be fixed unimpaired and in full vigor till time shall be no more.
I think the constitution Adams referred to was the state’s, not the federal; the state’s was more explicit about natural rights. As to “permanent as the everlasting mountains,” less than two decades later developers began to cut down the crest of Beacon Hill, as shown above. And then in August 1855 a construction crew dug up that corner of the State House to repair the foundation.

They discovered the silver plate set between two sheets of lead—along with some other objects that the 1795 newspaper hadn’t mentioned.

TOMORROW: An expanded time capsule.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Questions about James Otis, Jr., in Hull

Here are more anecdotes about James Otis, Jr., in Hull, from the 1866 Historical Magazine article by the son of a man who grew up there:
He was very courteous to the ladies, and quick in his resentments. Madam [Judith] Souther [1735-1801], his landlady, unintentionally offended him, and he put her social knitting needles for ever out of sight. When a young lady, whom we knew, was vaccinated, he officiated very kindly as the physician’s assistant. On long winter evenings Otis kept an evening school for the children of Hull. . . .

Otis was a ready wit. One day a hen flew against the window in a violent passion, owing to the disturbance of her young brood. A young lady being present, who was one of the Collier family, a rather high-spirited race, Mr. Otis, amused with the scene, remarked that the hen evidently possessed the blood of the Colliers, which excited a hearty laugh. . . .

One time, when in Boston, Mr. Otis disguised himself in the attire of a farmer from the country, and proceeded to the T. wharf, in the rear of Long wharf, where was a British man-of-war ship; a quantity of its freight on the wharf was guarded by a regular. Mr. Otis, in his assumed character, approached him, appearing to be very ignorant, designing to show a little spirit, inquired of the soldier whether “it would be safe to go near that ar’ shooting-iron of your’n?” The regular, unsuspicious of any design from such an apparently unintelligent clown, persuaded him to take the musket in his hand. Mr. Otis directly placed it on his foot, and kicked it with great energy into the dock. Then, drawing himself up with an expression of almost superhuman dignity, James Otis remarked to the soldier, “Go back to George the Third, and tell him that an American farmer taught a British soldier discipline. Next time keep your gun!”
That last anecdote has a number of aspects that would have made it appealing for an American audience in Revolutionary times: the supposed fool or rustic getting the better of a condescending person in the city, the crafty Yankee fooling a British soldier.

In fact, it feels too good to be true. What did the soldier and the other British military personnel do immediately afterwards? Would “an expression of almost superhuman dignity” really have been enough to ward off their response? And how did the story get back to Hull?

The story uses “dock” in an old-fashioned way to mean the watery area where the ship was moored rather than a small wharf, as we’d most likely think of it now.

Now does anyone have an idea how “social knitting needles” might differ from any other kind? The magazine definitely says that, but I can’t find the phrase anywhere else.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

James Otis in Hull

Back in October I left James Otis, Jr., “non compos mentis” in 1772, with Boston’s voters finally concluding that he lacked the mental stability to remain in office.

Otis’s family sent him out to the South Shore town of Hull. In 1866 someone writing in the Historical Magazine under the pseudonym “Shawmut” described what he had heard about Otis from his father, who grew up in that town:
He occupied a front chamber of the mansion of Captain Daniel Souther [1727-1797], formerly of the Royal Navy. . . . Being a restless person, and disturbed with sleepless nights, he would, for exercise, gather, at twilight, large flat blue stones from the beach, and pave the yard around the house. Vestiges of this labor, partly overgrown with grass, and an embankment of stones, which, with his own hands, he erected at the foot of the elevation behind the mansion, are yet remaining, and are preserved unaltered, with peculiar veneration, by the occupants.

James Otis often wandered to adjoining towns. One time, Captain Souther found him on the five-mile beach that leads to Hingham. On dismounting from his horse, Otis jumped upon it, and returned to the village with lightning speed, leaving the naval veteran to find his way home on foot. Being lame and infirm, on his arrival home he remonstrated with Otis at such conduct, who replied, with a smile, that the horse raced as if he had a thousand legs. At another period, Otis fired a gun up the old-fashioned chimney, making a tremendous racket, which he regarded as a very amusing act.

The father of the writer of this article has often related that when he was about ten years of age, his birth-place being on the estate adjoining Captain Souther’s mansion, our patriot, who was fond of children, instructed him in the polite art of dancing in the captain’s yard; and, often imagining himself a military officer, Otis would gather the boys of Hull in a body to march around the village, and many were the youthful games in which he would initiate them, which made him a great favorite with young people.
Among those young people of Hull was Susanna Haswell, ten-year-old daughter of another Royal Navy retiree. When she died in 1824, having become the best-selling novelist Susanna Rowson (shown above), the Port-folio reported about her childhood:
While she resided in Massachusetts, she had frequent opportunities of seeing that great orator, and lawyer, James Otis, then one of the most influential men in America. Much pains had been bestowed on her education, and this learned and enthusiastic scholar was delighted with her early display of talents, and called her his little pupil. This intimacy she recollected with pleasure and pride, in every period of her life.
In later retellings of this story, “little pupil” changed into “little scholar,” but the sentiment remained.

TOMORROW: More Otis anecdotes from Hull.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Revisiting the Long Room Club

As long as I’m discussing how Boston’s pre-Revolutionary Whigs organized, I should go back to the Long Room Club. Back in 2013 I said that:
  • the earliest printed reference to this group was in Samuel Adams Drake’s Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1873), which cited no source for that information.
  • Drake’s list of members included two men too young to have been in the top political leadership of the 1770s or before, two from outside Boston, and a printer known for being politically centrist, not Whig.
A commenter kindly alerted me that Hannah Mather Crocker wrote about the Long Room Club before her death in 1829 in the manuscripts published in 2011 as Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston. Drake cited “Mrs. Crocker’s memoir” for other information in his book, so she was almost certainly his source on the Long Room Club as well.

Crocker left multiple overlapping manuscripts, which editors Eileen Hunt Botting and Sarah L. Houser assembled in one volume. All its mentions of the Long Room Club offer the same basic information. As Crocker understood it, the group was formed in 1762 by Samuel Adams. Members included:
[Benjamin] Edes and [John] Gill…, [John] Green and [Joseph] Russell…, [John] Hancock, James Otis, Samuel Dexter of Dedham…, Colonel James Warren of Plymouth, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. [Charles] Jarvis, Dr. [Benjamin] Church, the honorable Ben Austin…, Dr. Sam Cooper, William Cooper town clerk, Josiah Quincy…, Thomas Daws…, Mr. Sam Phillips Savage, Capt [Samuel] Partridge, Thomas Fleet, Royal Tyler, Samuel Whitewell, William Mollineaux, John Winthrop, Paul Revere, Adam Coulston, and Thomas Melvell—we think the only survivor of the Long Room Club.
Crocker credited the Long Room Club with opposing the policy to station soldiers in town in 1768 and determining to destroy the tea in 1773. She wrote that the club dissolved before the war, but the leaders “formed the first provincial congress.”

Drake listed fewer members than Crocker had, leaving out Green, Russell, Jarvis, Partridge, Austin, Whitwell, Molineux, and Colson, and listing only one Warren. Drake rendered Samuel Phillips Savage as Samuel Phillips and John Winthrop as John Winslow.

Crocker wrote, “The long room over the printing office was devoted to the use of a political society.” In both versions of that statement, the printers she had just written about were Green and Russell, who published the Boston Post-Boy until 1773. Drake interpreted Crocker to mean instead that the club met in a room over Edes and Gill’s print shop, which is how the story came down to us. But what if Crocker meant Green and Russell? They weren’t as politically active or radical, which would cast a different light on the organization.

Crocker may have gotten her information from Thomas Melvill. She called him “a standing monument of the Long Room Club and the only left to tell.” Yet Melvill was born in 1751, meaning he was only eleven when the group was reportedly founded and just twenty-four when it disbanded. Thus, although Melvill was an active young man in the Revolution and the war, he probably was never in the top echelon of the Whigs.

That still leaves questions about the accuracy of our information about the Long Room Club. Crocker’s manuscripts let us push back the earliest reference to it by about half a century, to a time when veterans of the Revolutionary War were still alive. But there are still a lot of odd details, and we’re still dependent on one fallible source. (The footnotes in Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston cite Esther Forbes’s Paul Revere and the World He Lived In as another source, but that book’s description of the Long Room Club matches Drake, who evidently relied on Crocker.)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Whom Do We Mean by “Sons of Liberty”?

One for the perennial questions about America’s Revolution is how we should understand the “Sons of Liberty,” as American activists called themselves. With a television show of that name on the way, I suspect the question will come up even more.

In recent weeks Rebecca Brooks’s History of Massachusetts blog and Bob Ruppert’s article for the Journal of the American Revolution have tackled that question, rounding up the sources on the Sons of Liberty in Boston.

One one side of the spectrum of possible answers is the one implied by the “Sons of Liberty medal” I discussed yesterday: it was such a formalized group that it gave each member a medal engraved with his initials to wear on public occasions and (at least according to Johnny Tremain) flash as a sign of membership. That idea holds appeal for spy fiction writers, but the evidence for it is very thin.

On the other side is the idea that “Sons of Liberty” was a generic label for any men in the colonies who opposed the Crown’s new revenue measures and enforcement between the Stamp Act and the outbreak of war. That suggests it was no more of a formal group than, say, “all true Americans.”

Ben Carp’s article on the term for Colonial Williamsburg, which I missed when it was published on the web three years ago, offers some valuable information on how the phrase resonated in the Georgian British Empire:
The term “sons of liberty” or “sons of freedom” was a generic term of national pride in the eighteenth century, usable on both sides of the Atlantic for anyone who felt that English, and later British, liberty was his birthright. An English writer in 1753 knew that his readers, as “sons of liberty,” would recoil at tales of despotism in India and elsewhere. An Irish Protestant might rally his compatriots with the phrase. Essentially, a British son of liberty was the same thing as a patriot, or a “friend of his country.” In the 1760s, when Americans took pride in their identity as British subjects, they thought of empire and liberty as one and the same.

But in 1765, the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies changed, and so did the meaning behind the phrase “Sons of Liberty.” The phrase caught fire in America when Colonel Isaac Barré spoke against the Stamp Bill introduced in Parliament in February 1765.
A group of Whigs in Albany led by Dr. Thomas Young adopted the name “Sons of Liberty” when they wrote themselves a “constitution,” now known only through a photostat copy.

Most other groups didn’t that far, and local newspapers used the term in a more general way, as in “a great Number of Gentlemen, Sons of Liberty” (New York Mercury, 13 Jan 1766), or “some young gentlemen, Sons of Liberty” (Newport Mercury, 14 Apr 1766). There were also references to “Daughters of Liberty” and “Friends of Liberty,” all united in the same cause.

And in Boston? On 15 Jan 1766, John Adams wrote in his diary that he “Spent the Evening with the Sons of Liberty, at their own Apartment in Hanover Square, near the Tree of Liberty.” He named nine men who were there, without suggesting they were the only members of the group, and compared them to the sort of gentlemen’s club he was used to. A month later, one of those men, Thomas Crafts, Jr., told Adams that “the Sons of Liberty Desired your Company at Boston Next Wensday.”

So in early 1766 the term “Sons of Liberty” seems to have meant a particular group in Boston. Yet as of the end of the previous year that same group was calling itself “the Loyall Nine” while issuing the invitation shown above to “all True-born Sons of Liberty”—which implies they saw themselves as just part of a larger movement. And within a couple of years men not part of the Loyall Nine, such as Dr. Young from Albany, were taking the lead in organizing political actions in Boston.

By the anniversary of the first Stamp Act protests in 1769, over three hundred “Sons of Liberty” dined at Lemuel Robinson’s Liberty Tree tavern in Dorchester. Those men included some who became Loyalists as war arrived. That’s obviously too large and diverse a group to be secretly organizing radical political actions as the Loyall Nine had done back in 1765.

On the other hand, those political actions could bring out thousands of people, as at the funerals of early 1770 or the tea meetings of 1773. So there were probably many more than three hundred men in Boston who considered themselves “Sons of Liberty.” (Indeed, by making their celebration a sit-down dinner out in Dorchester, whoever organized that banquet made sure it was just for gentlemen.)

I think it’s best to think of the label “Sons of Liberty” as similar to “Tea Party,” “Women’s Lib,” or other mass movements from recent decades. There are small formal groups that use “Tea Party” in their names, but many people support the movement or attend events without joining such groups. No single organization decided everything said and done in the cause of “Women’s Liberation.” And those movements developed recognizable iconography, but they didn’t have membership badges.