America Must Remember Boston’s Liberty Tree
Monday, 03 Oct 2011 12:32 PM
By Ronald KesslerTen years before the American Revolution, colonists in Boston staged the first act of defiance against the British government.
No, it was not the Boston Tea Party. That took place just a year and a half before the start of the war.
Instead, the colonists’ first protest against the British unfolded on Aug. 14, 1765 at the Liberty Tree. A magnificent elm towering over the other trees nearby, the Liberty Tree stood at the corner of what is now Washington and Essex Streets in downtown Boston.
What set off the protest was passage five months earlier by the British Parliament of the Stamp Act. The first direct tax imposed on the colonists, it required that printed materials such as newspapers, pamphlets, deeds, posters, insurance policies, and bills of sale carry a revenue stamp. Violators of the Stamp Act were to be tried in British vice-admiralty courts in the colonies.
The colonists found the Stamp Act outrageous. It led to the rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” and agitation that culminated in the American Revolution.
On the morning of the 1765 protest, a crowd began to gather under the tree as word spread that an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the colonist chosen by King George III to impose the Stamp Act, had been hanged in its branches. Up in the tree with the effigy was a British cavalry jackboot. Grinning from inside the boot was a devil-like doll holding a scroll marked “Stamp Act.”
That night, crowds marched through the streets carrying the effigy to Oliver’s home. After burning the effigy, they ransacked his house. In fear of his life, Oliver resigned. On that Sept. 10, a small copper plate with the inscription “The Tree of Liberty” was nailed to the trunk of the elm.
This first public show of defiance led to the formation by some of the participants of the underground Sons of Liberty. It consisted of patriots like John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Meeting regularly under the tree, the Sons of Liberty plotted resistance against the Crown and eventually orchestrated the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773.
The tree grew to be such a vibrant symbol of the cause of independence that in 1775, just before the outbreak of the revolution, British soldiers cut it down.
“Armed with axes,” the Essex Gazette reported, “the British soldiers made a furious attack upon it. After a long spell of laughing and grinning, sweating, swearing, and foaming with malice diabolical, they cut down a tree because it bore the name of Liberty.”
Those British soldiers might still be laughing if they knew how the Liberty Tree has been obliterated from American history. While most Americans know about the Boston Tea Party, few are aware of the Liberty Tree and how important it was to fanning the flames of rebellion that led to the revolution in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence.
As a 22-year-old Boston Herald reporter, I heard about the Liberty Tree and its story. I walked the four blocks from the Boston Herald to the corner of Washington Street — originally Orange Street — and Essex Street to examine a bas-relief plaque commemorating it.
A block east of Boston Common, the plaque was in a section known as the Combat Zone, where prostitutes, muggers, and drunks prowled at night. The bas relief was installed on the third-floor level of a former brick warehouse built in1850 by David Sears.
Originally commissioned by Sears, the plaque was located directly over the spot where the Liberty Tree once stood. Underscoring how pivotal the tree was to American independence, the plaque bore the inscription, “Sons of Liberty 1766, Independence of Their Country 1776.”
Now black from soot, the building housed a delicatessen, a billiard parlor, a liquor store, and a hamburger place. The plaque was overshadowed by a billboard adjacent to it depicting a chubby young boy eating a hamburger.
Nobody looked up to see the plaque, which was just as well: It was covered with bird droppings.
In a series of articles beginning on Oct. 2, 1966, I wrote about the long-forgotten history of the Liberty Tree. To call attention to how obscure the site had become, I interviewed waitresses at the Essex Delicatessen below the plaque on Washington Street. None knew what the Liberty Tree was.
“The Liberty Tree? That’s a roast beef sandwich with a slice of Bermuda onion, Russian dressing, and a side of potato salad,” said one waitress who had worked beneath the plaque for 20 years.
Eventually, I persuaded John A. Volpe, then the Republican governor of Massachusetts, to inspect the grimy plaque from a 100-foot aerial fire truck ladder. A photo of him peering at the plaque from the ladder ran on page one of the Herald on Oct. 6, 1966.
Climbing down from the ladder, Volpe promised to create a park with monuments to let Americans know about the history of the Liberty Tree. Edward J. Logue, the administrator of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said the park would be a “handsome, open space” with grass, benches, plaques explaining the history of the tree, and “the largest elm tree that can be transported and is resistant to Dutch elm disease.”
That promise was never fulfilled. Instead, a tiny bronze plaque was recessed into the sidewalk across the street from the original bas-relief plaque. It’s as invisible to tourists as the old one on the third floor across the street above a branch of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.
The site is not part of Boston’s Freedom Trail, which includes 16 historic sites. Nor is the Liberty Tree included in most timelines of the revolution.
Last month, Glenn Beck ran a segment on his GBTV internet network highlighting the importance of the Liberty Tree. He cited the 1966 Boston Herald articles. But most Americans have no idea that America was born at the Liberty Tree.
When Marquis de Lafayette, the French soldier and statesman who helped George Washington fight the British, visited Boston in 1825, he said, “The world should never forget where once stood the Liberty Tree so famous in your annals.”
Shamefully, that is exactly what has happened.
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