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Commentary: Social Networking — How the Founding Generation Popularized Protest

By Stephen D. Solomon


Early in the morning on Feb. 20, 1766, handbills appeared around Boston inviting people to gather that cold winter day at the “Tree of Liberty” at Orange and Essex streets. There the Sons of Liberty would “make a public Exhibition” of “a Piece of Paper mark’d with America’s Oppression.” Everyone knew what that was — a special stamp to raise revenue for London. Even before the Stamp Act went into effect on Nov. 1, 1765, vigorous protests had erupted in Boston and throughout the Colonies to oppose what many regarded as a repressive tax passed without their consent.

The Boston Gazette reported that as many as 3,000 people, more than 15 percent of the town’s population, gathered at the tree that day. For two hours the Sons of Liberty held a mock trial of this “most detestable Object” with “many learned Debates.” As the newspaper noted, the jury quickly “found the said Prisoner guilty of a Breach of Magna Charta, and a Design to subvert the British Constitution, and alienate the Affections of His Majesty’s most loyal and dutiful Subjects in America from his Person and Government.” After the judge announced the sentence, the Sons of Liberty hung effigies of the Earl of Bute and George Grenville, two British prime ministers whom they thought responsible for the tax, alongside an effigy of the devil — a shocking juxtaposition since the devil represented all evil in Puritan theology. The crowd then tore down the effigies and carried them to another set of gallows at Boston Neck, where they built a bonfire and burned them.

The gathering at the liberty tree on Feb. 20 showed how political expression was expanding in the Colonies. Americans protested against the Stamp Act and during the next decade against other laws from Parliament that they found repressive. Beginning with essays and pamphlets written by well-educated politicians and lawyers, the protests then spread into more popular forms that the masses embraced — liberty trees, liberty poles, effigies, songs, poems, plays, sermons, letters, cartoons and street demonstrations. Ministers thundered from their pulpits. People lifted toasts in local taverns and wrote plays, petitions and letters. Protest had become popular through a kind of social networking as people interacted with each other in many venues, helping to turn public opinion against England.

Americans today are the heirs of the raucous political speech of the founding era and are expanding the sphere of political expression in new ways. They use social media to engage in major issues. Little more than a decade ago, large media organizations acted as gatekeepers who exerted control over an individual’s participation in political debate — an editor’s approval stood between a writer and a large audience. But now social media tools provide more than 200 million Americans with a kind of printing press or broadcasting channel of their own. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and other tools vault citizens into local and national conversations whenever they wish, and tens of millions of Americans utilize them every day.

No American of the founding period could have imagined the power to reach the world and to do so within seconds. But beginning in the decade before independence, they expanded political expression through the creative use of tools that were available to them. It amounted to a concerted and coordinated effort to expand participation in public issues, and without it there likely would not have been the support needed for independence. The American Revolution, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, “was in the Minds of the People” and took place “before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” As Adams said, “The Records of thirteen Legislatures, the Pamphlets, Newspapers in all the Colonies ought be consulted, during that Period, to ascertain the Steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies.” Adams referred to the profound changes of mind that transformed loyal subjects of England into revolutionaries in little more than a decade.

A group of pamphleteers, including Adams, wrote some of the essays that began to change minds. After passage of the Sugar Act in 1764, James Otis Jr. wrote an influential essay that acknowledged the sovereignty of Parliament but asserted that passage of a revenue act without consent of the Colonists deprived them of “one of their most essential rights, as freemen; and if continued, seems to be in effect an entire disfranchisement of every civil right.” A year later, Adams wrote that if rulers violate the people’s trust, “the people have a right to revoke the authority, that they themselves have deputed,” and to replace them.

They and other writers, publishing their work in newspapers and pamphlets, attacked Parliament in ways that resonated with other educated lawyers and politicians. They were not writing for the majority of people in the Colonies — many were illiterate, and even many of those who could read lacked the education to follow references that went back centuries in English history and included references to Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights and political philosophers from the European Enlightenment.

To show a united front against what they regarded as repression from England, political leaders in the Colonies had to involve the broader population. They had to make protest popular. But how could they do that?

In Boston, the hotbed of protest in the 1760s, the answer was to create political theater that would bring big crowds to the public square. And so a group of prominent civic figures enlisted Ebenezer McIntosh, a shoemaker and leader among the working class, to devise an outdoor protest. On the morning of Aug. 14, 1765, people entering Boston for market day passed by a magnificent elm tree from which McIntosh and his men had hung effigies of a former British prime minister, the local stamp distributor and the devil. The spectacle attracted huge crowds throughout the day, with the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter noting that people left their workplaces and “so much were they affected with a Sense of Liberty, that scarce any could attend to the Task of Day — Labour; but all seemed on the Wing for Freedom.” Officially dedicated as the Tree of Liberty, the great elm became a popular meeting place — a kind of outdoor marketplace of ideas — inspiring later events like the elaborate trial of the Stamp Act.

Beyond effigies and liberty trees, protest leaders also used numbers as a symbol for rallying popular support. The number 45 became a symbol of political liberty in England when John Wilkes, a member of Parliament, was arrested in 1763 for criticizing King George III in the 45th issue of his paper, The North Briton. When Alexander McDougall, a New York merchant, was held for trial for seditious libel in 1770 for criticizing the New York General Assembly, the Sons of Liberty used the number 45 to make him a martyr to repression like Wilkes. Forty-five “virgins” visited him in jail, according to the New York Journal. The New-York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury noted that “forty-five Gentlemen, real Enemies to internal Taxation...went in decent Procession to the New Gaol; and dined with him, on Forty-five Pounds of Beef Stakes, cut from a Bullock of forty-five Months old.” In New York and throughout the Colonies, people celebrated 45 in meals, toasts and parades, succeeding in making McDougall the “John Wilkes of America.”

Symbolic speech — liberty trees, effigies and 45 — made perfect agents for spreading protest. They stripped away complex legal arguments and presented imagery that, even without a written word or a spoken sentence, conveyed with clarity the idea that a faraway Parliament was violating their rights as Englishmen. Symbols also added colorful pageantry that served as an allure for drawing large crowds to the liberty tree or to marches through town. Afterward, people went to taverns and private homes to toast their commitment to freedom. With these gatherings, discussion of issues moved beyond the more formal confines of dense essays and Colonial assemblies.

News spread virally throughout the Colonies. By horseback and by ship, newspapers moved up and down the coast, and local papers republished the material. It took weeks for people in other Colonies to read articles first printed elsewhere, but once they did, they dedicated their own liberty trees and liberty poles and wrote their own commentary. Their activities and writings in turn spread far and wide, creating a kind of social network of shared news and information that over time shaped public opinion.

Symbols sparked broad participation in political protest, and many other popular forms of expression emerged as well. Colonial newspapers ran patriotic verse that vilified British authorities. The Newport Mercury heaped scorn on Francis Bernard, the royal governor of Massachusetts, for locking stamped paper in Castle William in Boston Harbor, safe from angry protestors who might destroy it. The Mercury satirized Bernard’s actions by describing the stamped paper as,

Undrawn, unbroken, and unpry’d,

Unfelt, unsmelt, untasted, & uney’d,

Unboil’d, unbak’d, unroasted, and unfry’d;

Protecting them from all abuse,

And keeping them unus’d, for use.

Some verse was put to music. John Dickinson, a lawyer in Philadelphia and later a Founding Father, proved that pamphleteers could also be best-selling songwriters. Dubbed the “Penman of the Revolution” for his many influential essays, including Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Dickinson understood the urgency of bringing the entire Colonial population into political protest. Just months after newspaper publication of his Letters concluded in 1768, Dickinson wrote to James Otis Jr. in Boston and included a special composition. “I inclose you,” he wrote to Otis, “a song for American freedom.”

Dickinson’s piece had eight verses set to popular British military music so that people could easily sing it. The Boston Gazette published his Liberty Song, and newspapers soon republished it throughout the Colonies. Dickinson made an energetic call to action — “Come, join Hand in Hand, brave AMERICANS all, / And rouse your bold Hearts at fair LIBERTY’s Call.” He called for unity in a line that would ring through the centuries — “By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.” Americans sang the song in taverns and at rallies throughout the Colonies. A group of patriots in Charleston dedicated a liberty tree with Dickinson’s song. And when John Adams dined with 350 members of the Sons of Liberty in August 1769, they all joined in. “This is cultivating the Sensations of Freedom,” Adams wrote in his diary.

Another patriot, Paul Revere, aroused people against the British by turning his skill as a silversmith into a tool of political expression. After British soldiers shot and killed Boston civilians on the evening of March 5, 1770, Revere published his engraving of the scene that he entitled “The BLOODY MASSACRE perpetrated in King Street BOSTON.” His depiction was almost entirely wrong, portraying the troops lined up like a firing squad to execute civilians. But Revere was not working as a historian. He conveyed his view that the deaths were the consequence of an occupying army in Boston that violated Colonial rights. Revere provided a narrative of oppression that came to define the event, intensifying opposition to England.

Revere’s engraving was an image with few words, but it nonetheless spoke loudly as political expression. The same was true of political cartoons sketched by Benjamin Franklin and others. In his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, Franklin published an image of a snake cut into pieces with the words “JOIN, or DIE,” signifying the failure of the Colonies to unify against threats on the frontier by the French and their Indian allies. As the Colonies engaged in a deepening dispute with England starting in the 1760s, Franklin’s snake image appeared over and over again, now signifying the need for the Colonies to unify against England. Revere adapted the snake for the masthead of the Massachusetts Spy.

Franklin’s cartoons were part of the broad effort to popularize protest, to reach beyond the lawyers and politicians and enlist the masses of common folk in an effort to oppose British measures thought by many to violate their rights. The Revolution, as Adams wrote in 1815, “was in the Minds of the People.” The battle to change minds came about before Lexington and Concord and involved a surge of boisterous political speech. Free speech and public participation, as the founding generation was learning, were essential to a democratic self-governing society.


Stephen D. Solomon, author of Revolutionary Dissent, is Marjorie Deane Professor of Journalism at New York University and founding editor of firstamendmentwatch.org, which provides legal and historical background on current free-speech conflicts.

This political cartoon, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, underscored the importance of unity in the Colonies’ resistance to what they saw as British oppression. The snake was cut into eighths, with New England represented by one segment. (The American Revolution: A Picture Sourcebook/Dover Publications, Inc.)