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Liberty Tree

By Matthew Wilding

Throughout Boston, buildings both on and off the Freedom Trail are commemorated for their roles as meeting spaces that shaped history. From the Old South Meeting House to Tremont Temple to the Green Dragon, these sites are revered for the rallies held in them, the words that were spoken within their walls, and the historical results of these meetings. However, it is often overlooked that just as there were important indoor meeting spaces, there were outdoor ones as well. And in the history of Boston, there is not one outdoor rallying point, except perhaps Boston Common, with more significance than that of Liberty Tree.

Liberty Tree was a rather large elm tree at the corner of Essex and Orange (now Washington) Streets in the South End (now Chinatown) of Boston. Bostonians first used it during the Stamp Act crisis (1764-66), when the British Parliament was threatening a tax on paper goods such as legal documents, newspapers, and even playing cards. Almost all of the citizens of the British colonies in America opposed the tax, as well as another tax on molasses that had been passed in 1763, because they believed that only colonial representatives had the right to tax colonists (for more information on this subject, see the "Stamp Act Crisis" article). To show their disdain for the tax, a group of colonists organized by the "Loyal Nine," who later evolved into the Boston branch of the Sons of Liberty, protested. They did this by hanging an effigy-a representation, like a doll, of a hated person-of the royally appointed stamp distributor, Andrew Oliver, on the morning of August 14, 1765. A large model boot accompanied the effigy, with the devil popping out of it, which was meant to symbolize former British Prime Minister Lord Bute, whom the colonists held responsible for the act.

Colonists congregated at Liberty Tree later in the year to see Mr. Oliver, whom they had so effectively hung in effigy, formally resign at the site on December 23, 1765. Though he requested the event take place at the Town House, where the colonial government's official business traditionally took place, local activists, many of whom were associates of Oliver's and members of the colonial assembly in town, insisted that the event occur at their political center, not the one deemed appropriate by the British government, nor any of its loyal officers.

In February and March of 1770, Liberty Tree enjoyed an even larger role within the community - that of mourning. On February 22, a young boy named Christopher Seider had been throwing snowballs at a storefront that contained boycotted goods, as well as an unstable British soldier named Ebenezer Richardson. Enraged by the ten-year-old boy and his friends, Richardson shot his gun out a window to shoo them away them, but hit and murdered young Seider. Outraged citizens demanded justice, and Samuel Adams organized a funeral for the unknown boy at Fanueil Hall. The funeral procession, started at Fanueil Hall and ended in the Granary Burial Grounds, took a symbolic detour to the edge of the South End, where the casket of the boy, as well as thousands of mourners, marched by the historic tree.

Less than two weeks later, the "horrid massacre on King Street," today simply called the Boston Massacre, occurred. Five locals, including Crispus Attucks, were killed as a result, and again Samuel Adams organized a funeral, which went from Fanueil Hall to the Granary, with an out-of-the-way lap around the Liberty Tree.

With so many events, speeches, and protests constantly surrounding the tree, local citizens that remained loyal to the British crown during the Revolutionary period voiced open distain for this rallying point of the Sons of Liberty. During Boston's occupation by British troops in 1775, local loyalists took advantage of their temporary control of the town by cutting the tree down. Although the tree was gone, its stump remained, and was subsequently named "Liberty Stump." It maintained its position as a symbol of the movement so well that 50 years later, French military hero and American ally Marquis de Lafayette stopped at the corner where the Liberty Tree stood, while touring the United States, and declared "the world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree, so famous in your annals."

Although Liberty Tree has been erased from Boston’s landscape, there is no question that it remains an important part of America's history. From its start in Boston, the idea of a tree as a symbolic, political gathering place spread to other colonies. During the revolutionary era, there was not a colony on the coast that was without a tree named "Liberty."

Further Reading: Young, Alfred. Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution. New York University Press. New York, NY. 2006.
Edited by Marisa Calleja

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