The Sons of Liberty

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12243

Have you ever been to a costume party? There was a very famous -- and infamous -- party held by the Sons of Liberty, a radical group that got their message across in cruel and violent ways. Watch out!


United States

learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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What would you consider to be a radical way for people to protest their ideas? How about throwing a party? Literally!

Today, there are conventional ways of opposing political ideas and radical ways of opposing political ideas.

  • Conventional methods include formal negotiations, non-violent protests, and petitions.
  • Radical ways usually involve violence or destruction of property. It could include things such as blowing up buildings, violent protests, or hacking and destroying a computer network. In the mid-1700s, the Sons of Liberty used radical methods to oppose the British.

The Sons of Liberty was a secretive organization, and they did not keep much documentation. Therefore, historians are uncertain exactly how the group began, but it is believed to have started in 1765. In 1765, the British government passed the first major tax law in the colonies, called the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act placed a tax, or fee, on all paper products, including newspapers, playing cards, and stationary. It is believed the Sons of Liberty formed in response to the Stamp Act.

Historians do know the first Sons of Liberty groups were established in Boston and New York. Eventually, groups could be found in all of the American colonies. Membership consisted of males from all backgrounds and classes. The name "Sons of Liberty" comes from a debate that was held in Parliament, which is the British government. When debating the Stamp Act, an Irish Member of Parliament, Isaac Barre, spoke in favor of the colonists and referred to them as “Sons of Liberty.”

The Sons of Liberty was a secretive group because they knew the consequences of standing up to the British. If they were found to be members, they could be tortured or even killed by the British. For this reason, lists of who belonged to the Sons of Liberty were not kept. It is known that Samuel Adams, cousin of John Adams, and Paul Revere led the Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts. The Sons of Liberty often met in secret at local taverns, although sometimes they met in public at landmarks such as a flagpole or tree to publicly protest British laws and taxes. These places were referred to as a “liberty pole” or “liberty tree.”

The Sons of Liberty would also hang things from a liberty pole to signal when they were to meet and to communicate with one another locally. The Sons of Liberty used Committees of Correspondence to communicate with groups in other colonies. The Committees of Correspondence formed an intricate communication network throughout the colonies. During the 1700s, you could not turn on your television to find out what was happening in other colonies. The Committees of Correspondence established routes and used people to carry messages and news to other colonies.

The Sons of Liberty were different from other political organizations at the time because they were much more radical. Radical groups often employ extreme and violent measures to express their ideas. The Sons of Liberty were known to fight British oppression by using the following methods:

  • They would raid and destroy homes and businesses of those who supported the British and British taxes.
  • They would capture loyalists, colonists who supported the British, and cover them with tar and feathers. They would then parade the individuals through town.
  • They would often start fights with loyalists.
  • They would boycott British goods.
  • They would form mobs and riots to protest British taxes. These riots often became violent.
  • In 1766, they interrupted a theater performance in New York. They forced those watching the play out into the street and burned the theater to the ground.

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering

Image attributed to Philip Dawe, via Wikimedia Commons, from the John Carter Brown Library is in the public domain.

Of all the actions taken by the Sons of Liberty, they are best known for the Boston Tea Party. To protest the Tea Act, which was a tax on tea, the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans and snuck aboard several ships carrying tea in the Boston Harbor. They poured hundreds of pounds of tea into the harbor. Many historians agree this event is what led to the conflict that started the Revolutionary War, because the British responded to the Boston Tea Party with even harsher taxes and laws. These taxes and laws, known as the Coercive Acts, made the colonists so upset that they chose to begin fighting the British a few months later.

While many colonists opposed the way they were treated by the British, most disagreed with the methods used by the Sons of Liberty. Even John Adams and George Washington expressed disgust at the way the Sons of Liberty acted.

  • Do you think the methods and tactics used by the Sons of Liberty were a good way to stand up against the British?
  • How would you have gone about fighting the British?

Share your answers with your teacher or parent.

Then, move on to the Got It? section to review what you have learned.

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