As we sit back and enjoy our Independence Day and the cookouts and cold brews that go with it Americans should take a moment to remember why we celebrate this day. There are many symbols of our Revolution like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the Old North Church in Boston and nearby Lexington Common and Concord Bridge or the Victory Monument at Yorktown, Virginia. Numerous other sites are preserved either by the federal, state and local governments all across the 13 colonies. These are important to us but one symbol could not be preserved, the Liberty Tree.
Of course the Liberty Tree was not always called that. It was originally an elm tree that stood on the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street (now Washington Street) in Boston and was planted in 1646.
On August 13, 1765 a crowd gathered to protest the Stamp Act, which required the colonists to pay for a stamp to prove that tax was paid on everything from newspapers, advertisements, legal documents to playing cards. The colonists saw this as censorship and an unfair tax that was not levied on subjects in England and against their rights as the colonists had no representation in Parliament. The crowd was not violent but it was the first crack in the facade of British sovereignty. A radical group called the Sons of Liberty hung an effigy of the colonist who represented King George III in imposing the act as well as a cavalry jackboot and a devil-looking doll holding a Stamp Act scroll. The sheriff attempted to cut down the effigy but was stopped by the crowd the following day. This was the first public act of defiance by the colonies and while the Stamp Act was eventually repealed things only got worse for the Crown. It should be no surprise that the spark that began the Revolution came near Boston.
The Sons of Liberty often held their meetings in an apartment near the tree and included soon-to-be famous names like John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Future president John Adams was a later collaborator as well. When Hancock’s ship was seized by the British a mob seized a customs commissioner’s boat and drug it to the tree where a mock trial was held and the boat was sentenced to be burned on nearby Boston Common. In 1770 the funeral procession of the Boston Massacre victims went past the tree on the way to the Granary Burial Ground. Four years later a British customs official was tarred-and-feathered and the mob threatened to hang him from the tree (they didn’t).
When the Revolution was sparked the elm tree was given the name Liberty Tree. The British army quickly occupied Boston and the tree became the subject of ridicule by their soldiers and loyal colonists alike. The occupiers tarred-and-feathered at least one colonist and forced him to march in front of the tree to publicly humiliate him. Knowing the symbolism of the tree to the revolutionaries a Loyalist named Job Williams led a party of men to cut down the tree and used it for firewood in retaliation for the colonists actions at Lexington and Concord. After the British evacuated Boston a Liberty Pole was erected where the tree stood.
The tree became a martyr to the Patriot cause and its image soon graced the flags of the Continental army. The tree’s image symbolized the unwavering spirit of liberty and the flags were carried in nearly every major battle of the war. It was Thomas Jefferson who said “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” following the war and he had the tree in mind when he stated it.
Today a small bronze plaque marks the spot where the tree stood and a wood carving of the tree has been placed on a building across the street. The site of the tree was left out of the famous Freedom Trail of Boston National Historic Park so the only visitors are those who know where the tree once stood. The government does not want to celebrate the mischief, anarchy and mob rule that took place near the tree even if it is our own history.