August 26, 2015

Boston’s Liberty Tree Illuminated (Part II)

In our last post, we examined the events that occurred in Boston on August 14, 1765. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Liberty Tree lanterns.

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When Parliament finally accepted the reality that the Stamp Act could not be enforced and repealed the measure, Bostonians chose to celebrate at the Liberty Tree. News of the repeal arrived in Boston in May 1766. On May 19 and again on May 20, the entire town was illuminated by candlelight and the Liberty Tree itself was hung with dozens of lanterns. According to some accounts, 108 lanterns were hung from the tree—a reference to the margin by which the repeal passed in the House of Commons. “Liberty Hall” was decorated with banners and scrims painted with allegories depicting the story of liberty and the victory of Britannia, and the streets around the Liberty Tree were choked with revelers. In a way, the lanterns marked the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Liberty Tree, as it moved from serving as a site of assembly and political action to a site of memory, where the power of ordinary people to effect change through collective action was celebrated.

Though they have remarkable significance to the history of the American Revolution, not much is known from the surviving written accounts of the May 1766 celebrations about the lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree. Fortunately, at least three have survived, including one in the Society’s collection.

In many ways the Bostonian Society’s lantern is relatively undistinguished. Like most lanterns of the second half of the eighteenth century, it is made of tin and glass. It is large enough to accommodate two candles, but at just over 20 inches by just under 8 ½ inches it is not oversized. It is painted green, red, and gold, and the tinwork is well executed but not overly ornate.

Detail of 1889.0024
A closer look, however, reveals much that is of interest. The lantern bears a carefully wrought crown of elm leaf finials, a clear reference to the Liberty Tree itself. Importantly, the same finials are found atop all three surviving lanterns that hung from the Liberty Tree in May 1766. This suggests that the lanterns were made as a set, either by a single tin worker or by multiple craftsmen working together. Clearly, the lanterns were not a spontaneous outpouring contributed by Boston residents; instead, they were part of a carefully planned commemoration of the repeal and of the Liberty Tree’s role in the defeat of the Stamp Act.

The materials from which the lantern was made tell us much about the mindset of the celebration’s organizers. During the Stamp Act crisis, Boston merchants had adopted a non-importation agreement - basically, a boycott of goods imported from Britain - and craftsmen and consumers alike were asked to forego goods made in England. With the repeal of the Stamp Act, however, British imports flooded back into the market, and it appears that even the group most committed to defeating the Stamp Act was happy to resume purchasing these goods. We know this because the lantern is made almost entirely of imported wares: the production of both tin and glass were prohibited in the colonies and had to be imported from Britain; even paint was primarily an imported luxury. The lantern suggests, in other words, that those in Boston who most bitterly contested the Stamp Act still considered themselves members in good standing of the larger imperial polity and beneficiaries of the British trading system that brought luxury imports to their small town on the periphery of the Atlantic world. The lanterns they used to commemorate the history of the Liberty Tree thus tell a more complex story than we might expect about the origins of the American Revolution and the place of Bostonians in shaping it.

Replica lantern at the August 14 event
(Courtesy of Heather Rockwood)
What would members of the Revolutionary generation make of Boston’s efforts to commemorate the history of the Liberty Tree 250 years after its birth as both a site of popular politics and a political symbol? The answer is hard to know, but we can be certain that they would recognize the power of memory to shape the world in which we live. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Boston in 1824, he stopped at the site of the Liberty Tree and declared: “The world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree.” But the world has forgotten both the spot and the tree. Earlier in August, we invited the public to reflect on the legacy entrusted to us by an earlier generation of Bostonians. As part of the event, 108 replica lanterns were carried through the city to the Liberty Tree site at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets.  We should not forget this spot, and the lanterns that illuminated it.

In an upcoming post, we will tackle a final mystery about the Society’s Liberty Tree lantern: who painted the words that appear on the bottom surface of the lantern?

By Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History

August 13, 2015

Boston’s Liberty Tree Illuminated (Part I)

This Friday marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Boston’s Liberty Tree on August 14, 1765. An enormous elm whose arched boughs shaded the main road into Boston from the surrounding countryside, the Liberty Tree served as the gathering place for the first convulsive mass protest against Parliamentary legislation during the Revolutionary era and quickly emerged as the most potent symbol of the American cause. Towns and villages across North America identified Liberty Trees of their own and used them, as the people of Boston did, as places to come together, voice their grievances, and call for change. No other place speaks as plainly to the role that ordinary people played in making the American Revolution as does the site of Boston’s Liberty Tree.

Some of the 108 lanterns for Friday's event
(Courtesy of Martha McNamara)
On Friday night, Bostonians will remember this history by coming together where the Liberty Tree once stood, at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets. The event will connect participants and audience members to the American tradition of popular assembly so deeply rooted in this place and invite each person to reflect on the meaning of the American Revolution for our own era, 250 years on. To give shape to this conversation, participants belonging to five community organizations from across Boston will carry 108 lanterns, each decorated with artwork that speaks in its own way to the enduring legacy of the Liberty Tree.

The lanterns themselves tell an interesting story that connects back to both the history of the Liberty Tree itself and the historic Liberty Tree lantern in our museum collection. To unravel it, we must return to the August morning in 1765 when Bostonians first gathered beneath the Liberty Tree. As the sun rose that warm day, carts and foot-traffic passing into town came across two unusual objects hanging from the branches of the well-known elm: an effigy of Andrew Oliver, a high-ranking member of Massachusetts government and the man who had been appointed to oversee enforcement throughout the colony of the hated Stamp Act; and a green-soled boot containing a stylized representation of the devil. This last was a reference to the Earl of Bute, seen as the driving force behind Parliament’s decision to pass the Stamp Act in March 1765.

Bostonians reviled the Stamp Act because it imposed a tax on the colony without their consent. Massachusetts voters elected representatives to their own colony’s legislature, and few people contested that body’s right to enact taxes. However, no one in Massachusetts could cast a vote in Parliamentary elections. The Stamp Act was due to go into effect on November 1, 1765, but already it had been the topic of heated debate about town for more than a year. Everyone knew that the colony’s “humble petition” asking Parliament to repeal the act would be rejected. The congress proposed by the Massachusetts assembly as a means of coordinating the efforts of all the colonies to secure repeal would not take place until October, by which time it would be too late. If something were to be done, it would have to happen soon.

Corner of Essex and Orange Streets in 1774, showing Liberty Tree
(1958.0004.004) 
When Oliver and Bute’s effigies unexpectedly appeared in the arbor above a busy section of street, therefore, it struck a chord that resonated all across town. First hundreds and then thousands of Boston residents turned out to see the spectacle. As they approached the tree where the effigies hung, they could hear speakers exhorting them to stand strong in defense of the liberties that were their birthright as subjects of the British crown. By the hundreds they shouted “No!” when the speakers cried “Stamp!” As the crowd swelled, the royal governor called on the county sheriff to cut down the effigies and disperse the assembly. Sheriff Greenleaf’s deputies were barred from approaching the tree and sent away with a promise that the effigies would be removed at nightfall. And indeed they were. The throng removed the effigies and paraded with the likeness of Oliver up the street to the Town House (i.e., the Old State House). They marched through the building and directly beneath the governor’s chamber, chanting their opposition to the Stamp Act. Next the crowd proceeded to the waterfront, where they tore down a structure on Andrew Oliver’s dock that was believed to contain the stamped paper to be used in enforcing the Stamp Act. Finding no paper, they instead took the rubble from the destroyed building up nearby Fort Hill, where they burned it in full view of Oliver’s private home. Each piece of wood was ceremoniously “stamped” before being committed to the fire. And when the bonfire was sufficiently hot, Oliver’s effigy was sent to a fiery death—a far-from-subtle message to the provincial Secretary, who watched from this window not far off.

Oliver had seen his likeness hung from a tree with a rope about his neck, paraded through town, and consumed by flames. His property had been destroyed, and he surely felt lucky to have escaped with his own health intact. By the next morning, Oliver had resigned his post as stamp distributor for Massachusetts. No replacement could be found. The great mass of ordinary people had made their voices heard, and in one frightful blow the Stamp Act was made a dead letter throughout Massachusetts. Other towns soon followed Boston’s lead, and before long protests had forced the resignation of those charged with enforcing the Stamp Act in every colony but Georgia.

In Boston, the protesters and their sympathizers celebrated their victory by naming the tree where the protest began “the Liberty Tree.” A plaque bearing this title was affixed to the tree in early September, and a new organization calling itself the Sons of Liberty pledged to defend not just the tree but the larger cause of American liberty. As fall turned to winter, thousands continued to gather at the Liberty Tree to voice their opposition to the Stamp Act. Soon the newspapers were calling the space beneath the tree “Liberty Hall”—a reference, perhaps, to Faneuil Hall where the town government met and an indication that the proceedings in this outdoor space were seen by some, at least, as a legitimate part of the political process.

Liberty Tree Lantern in the Council Chamber
(1889.0024)
Check back next week for the continuation of this story and to learn more about the Liberty Tree lanterns. And please come to the Liberty Tree site at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets on Friday, August 14, at 8pm to join in commemorating 250 years of an important American ideal.

By Nat Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History



August 6, 2015

Commemorating the Liberty Tree and the Stamp Act Riots

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This month marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Boston's famous Liberty Tree. On August 14, 1765, Bostonians gathered beneath an enormous elm not far from Boston Common to protest the hated Stamp Act, which taxed the people of Massachusetts without their consent. The protest convinced the official charged with administering the tax to resign his office, and the tree where the protest had begun received a new name: the Liberty Tree.

This event is commonly viewed as the start of the American Revolution, while the Liberty Tree emerged as the most prominent symbol of the important role played by ordinary people in creating the new republic. The Bostonian Society will be commemorating the enduring legacy of the Liberty Tree at a number of upcoming events.

Join us at Liberty Tree Plaza (at the intersection of Washington and Boylston Streets) on August 14 at 8:00 pm for a lantern illumination.  Community organizations from throughout Boston will gather at the site of the Liberty Tree to display 108 copper lanterns modeled on the historic lanterns that were hung on the Liberty Tree during the Stamp Act crisis. The lanterns will be decorated with artwork and together will give expression to the meanings that the Liberty Tree holds for the people of Boston today. Nat Sheidley, our Historian and Director of Public History, will be one of the speakers at this event.  This event is a presented by Medicine Wheel Productions and Revolution250, a coalition of historic organizations (including the Bostonian Society) committed to working together to mark the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.

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Take part in Echoes of the Past, a free, live-action game on August 15 from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm.  Begin your adventure at the Old State House or at the Downtown Crossing Information Cart on Summer Street. Discover riddles, ciphers, grudges, and plots to learn the story of Boston's historic Stamp Act Riot. With the guidebook in hand (or using a web version on their mobile device) players will hunt for ghosts, or "Echoes of the Past." These live costumed interpreters will quickly draw  players into the political intrigues of 1765. After collecting a stamp for their book from each character in the game, players will discover the game's thrilling climax at 4:00 p.m. when they join together with an 18th-century mob to participate in a protest march from the site of the Liberty Tree to the hub of colonial power, the Old State House.

Participate in a reenactment of the Stamp Act Riot on August 15 at 4:00 pm.  Meet at the corner of Washington Street and Winter Street (next to the Downtown Crossing T Station) and join historic reenactors in period costume in a raucous march through the streets of Boston to the Old State House to protest the coming Stamp Act. Can the stamp distributor be compelled to resign his post? This event is co-sponsored by the Bostonian Society and Revolution250.

We hope that you'll be able to join us for these events, and please leave any questions in the comments.
 

July 31, 2015

A look at the Elizabeth Bull wedding dress

A few weeks ago we introduced you to the love story of Elizabeth Bull and Roger Price and the wedding dress that Elizabeth began working on before they even met.  Have you had a chance to stop by the Old State House to see this exquisite dress in person?  Our visitors have delighted in the opportunity to examine this craftsmanship up close, but if you can't stop by, we hope you'll enjoy this virtual look at the wedding dress and an explanation of  the conservation work that went into making it exhibit ready.

The gown is a circa 1730 wedding dress within the collections of the Bostonian Society. It was originally constructed by Elizabeth Bull, who was born in 1717.   It was acquired by the Society in 1910, gifted by Francis Erving Weston who was the granddaughter of Olivia Price Hall, who was the niece of Elizabeth Bull’s daughter, also named Elizabeth.  According to Francis Erving Weston, Elizabeth worked this dress while at school in 1731.

The garment incorporates a variety of embroidery methods, called crewel work which is typically done in wool on domestic items. The resulting work is intricate and beautiful, and the process highly instructional.

The wedding dress was conserved in 2012. It was dry-cleaned meticulously by hand and vacuumed using mesh as a guard and a low pressure machine. Portions of the dress were stabilized with mesh and the sleeves were fitted with a new silk overlay. A specialty mount was hand carved from inert foam for both the dress and the petticoat. The petticoat was removed from beneath the main skirt during conservation.

We chose conservation rather than restoration. Restoration would have dramatically altered the dress returning it to the original 1730’s silhouette. Serving as a palimsest for succeeding generations, the dress indicates the many Bull women who owned, wore, and cherished it, and this was a story we wanted to tell.

The Elizabeth Bull wedding dress will be on display in the Council Chamber of the Old State House until November.

By Tricia Gilrein, Collections Manager and Exhibitions Coordinator

July 23, 2015

£54 for Three Months Service

As part of our Revolutionary Characters program, each visitor to the Old State House receives a card that tells the story of a real person who lived in Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Revolutionary Characters help visitors to see the Revolution through the eyes of the people who lived it.  When I am selecting a document to go in the special archival case in Representatives' Hall, I sometimes try to find an item that pertains to one of our Revolutionary Characters.  I feel that seeing a letter, legal document, or financial record written in a Revolutionary Character's own hand or bearing their signature helps our visitors to connect to these Bostonians of the past.  For July, I've selected an item that pertains to Richard Gridley.

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Colonel Richard Gridley was a veteran of the French and Indian War and was the Chief Engineer of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  Currently on display at the Old State House is an order to pay him for three months service in April, May, and June of 1776.  For these three months of service, Gridley was due fifty-four pounds (listed in the order as equal to 180 dollars). According to Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution, Gridley "had been appointed Chief Engineer by a resolve of the Provincial Congress of April 26, 1775, and by a later resolve of May 19, 1775 he had been commissioned Chief Engineer and Colonel of Artillery with rank of Major General."  Col. Gridley is remembered as laying the defenses at Breed's Hill in April 1775, and for constructing the fortifications on Dorchester Heights, which led to the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776.  Gridley died in 1796 and is buried in Canton, Massachusetts, and a monument to him there includes a quote from George Washington that states, "I know of no man better fitted to be Chief Engineer than General Gridley."

If you look closely at this order, you can see that it was submitted by major general Artemas Ward to Ebenezer Hancock, brother to John Hancock, who was the Deputy Paymaster-General of the Continental Army. It includes Ward's signature, along with Gridley's signature acknowledging receipt of the payment on July 16, 1776 - 239 years ago this month.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager