Redeveloping Place and Narrative at the Site of the Liberty Tree

Jul 23, 2020

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest scholar post comes to us from Maddie Webster, and is a timely reflection on the origins of commemoration for the Liberty Tree in Boston, a historic site of great significance for varied stakeholders. Maddie is a Ph.D. student in the American & New England Studies Program at Boston University, where she studies urban history and historic preservation in the nineteenth century. Her dissertation project is interested in expanding the bounds of what counts as historic preservation.

By: Maddie Webster

Image of red brick, four story building. Plaque showing engraved green tree representing the liberty tree.

Liberty Tree Block and memorial panel, 2015, Freedom Trail Foundation

By the time David Sears turned his attention to the corner of Washington and Essex Streets in 1849, he was one of the wealthiest landowners in Boston and the city’s most prolific developer. At 62-years-old, Sears was in between two of his most ambitious ventures: the laying out of Brookline’s Longwood and Cottage Farm neighborhoods and the filling-in of the Back Bay.[1] The Washington and Essex property, though less monumental an undertaking in scale, held historic importance as the location of the Liberty Tree, where the Sons of Liberty gathered to protest the Stamp Act and other parliamentary actions in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.

At the time Sears purchased the buildings occupying the historic corner, urban sprawl and time had erased all traces of the long-felled Liberty Tree. It appeared as if the previous property owners had ignored the Marquis de Lafayette’s counsel from 25 years earlier, when, on his grand tour of the United States, he looked upon the Liberty Tree’s stump and told the crowd, “The world should never forget where once stood the Liberty Tree, so famous in your annals.”[2] Sears however, heeded Lafayette’s call, naming his new commercial building the “Liberty Tree Block” and commissioned a large memorial panel to be installed in the façade fronting Washington Street. Though this commemorative act could appear to be a civic-minded effort to preserve the memory of a nationally and locally significant icon, Sears planned to take advantage of his ownership in order to rid the Liberty Tree of its radical connotations and reaffirm liberty as entwined with property rights. In redeveloping the property, he redeveloped the memory of the Liberty Tree to meet his own principles and commercial interests—fusing self-interest with commemorating heritage for the sake of the public good.

The Washington and Essex property, at the corner of a bustling commercial stretch, was not a high-risk gamble for Sears.[3] If the elm had spread its roots in less lucrative land, he probably would not have gone out of his way to memorialize it. After all, the Liberty Tree was not a sacred battleground like Bunker Hill nor a historic building like Old South Meeting House or Faneuil Hall, the places conservative Boston Brahmins such as Sears counted as the crucibles of the American Revolution. [4] Rather, the Liberty Tree symbolized the unrestrained, mob-uprising, effigy-burning, house-plundering, tar-and-feathers side of the conflict. As the historian Alfred Young notes, of the five major crowd actions against the Stamp Act between 1765 and 1766, the Liberty Tree was associated with four. In the early national period, Boston’s “new Brahmin elite did not want to celebrate crowd actions, organized or spontaneous, nonviolent or violent.”[5] The preferred memory of the Revolution highlighted the impassioned defenses of Enlightenment principles in pamphlets and speeches by an earlier generation of elite men and submerged the defiant actions of the plebeian crowds. From the first Stamp Act protest under one of the great elms—soon after to be christened the “Liberty Tree”—at Hanover Square on August 14, 1765, to the day an avenging Loyalist chopped down the Liberty Tree in August of 1775, the Liberty Tree stood as an icon of popular resistance in the public sphere. That would not be the version of the Liberty Tree commemorated by Sears.

Months before construction on the building was completed, Sears unveiled the Liberty Tree Block to the public in a letter. On September 29, 1849, he wrote to Mayor John P. Bigelow and the city council to inform them that the old buildings at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets were recently razed to make way for his development project. The letter is an atypical notice occasioned by the historic nature of the property: Sears only briefly mentioned the character of his new commercial building before launching into a history of the Liberty Tree and its role leading up to the American Revolution. He expressed that, by assuming ownership of the site where the Liberty Tree once stood, it was his duty to “make record of certain facts, and to note the changes connected with this historic corner.”[6] He positioned himself as the sole steward of a historic location.

Sears established authority not only through his ownership of the land, but also from his proclaimed reliance on “Snow’s ‘History of Boston,’ and [on] the public records of 1775” as the basis of his short history of the Liberty Tree, though Sears deviated greatly from Snow’s work.[7] For example, in recounting the events of August 14, 1765, Snow began with the hanging of effigies of stamp master Andrew Oliver and a devil peeking out from behind a boot, emblematic of Lord Bute, from the branches of the Liberty Tree. He then described the procession of the mob bearing the Oliver effigy on its way to demolish Oliver’s stamp office before heading to Fort Hill to burn the effigy in front of Oliver’s house. Afterward, they tore down his windows and garden fence. The ruckus continued throughout the evening.[8] In Sears’ version, however, he obscured the day and eliminated the effigies from the series of events. Instead, he wrote that a “single act of riot” in the “pulling down” of a stamp office “marked this meeting,” but it “proved, however, to be the intoxication of a moment, and was never repeated. The building was afterward, with an apology, paid for.”[9] In his account of the Stamp Act protests, he exerted a remarkable amount of energy condemning violent crowd actions, especially destruction of property. The Liberty Tree became merely a meeting point, a place where resistance was sprouted by the Loyal Nine, and the later incarnation of this secret group, the Sons of Liberty.[10] He affirmed the property rights of Loyalists as an equally, if not more important, attribute of liberty.

In the letter, Sears announced that his plans for memorializing the Liberty Tree extended beyond nomenclature to a memorial marker. To bring pedestrians’ attention to the former site of the Liberty Tree, Sears had “caused to be sculptured, in bas-relief, a representation of this celebrated tree, with appropriate inscriptions” and “inserted it in that part of the building which fronts Washington street.” He assured the mayor and city council that he had determined the exact site of the tree, and accordingly had the panel placed “directly over where the tree itself formerly stood.”[11] The memorial panel materialized the sentiments Sears expressed in his historical account, replacing the long-gone elm with an innocuous depiction of it.

The panel, still seen in the building today and now accompanied by an additional plaque on the ground across from the window, is dominated by the tree in bas-relief, measuring five-feet wide by eight-feet tall.[12] Inscriptions surround the tree: “Liberty 1765” flanks it to the left and right, while “Sons of Liberty 1766” and “Independence of their Country 1776” are mounted in larger letters below. “Law and Order” is carved into the roots. Sears procured skilled craftsmen, local ship carvers Winsor & Brother of 12 North Market Street, to create the panel.[13] He likely provided the ship carvers with a likeness of the Liberty Tree pulled from the same book he based his history on, instead of any number of earlier depictions of the Liberty Tree, including one by Paul Revere that featured the low-hanging branches that served as sturdy supports for hanging effigies. The 1825 illustration in Snow’s A History of Boston claimed to present the Liberty Tree as it appeared in 1774. Snow recounted that on February 14, 1766, the Sons of Liberty officially bestowed the title of “Liberty Tree” upon the elm, and proceeded to prune it “after the best manner.” A “number of skilled carpenters [were] appointed for the purpose. . . so that the Tree was now become a great ornament to the street.”[14] Sears fixated on this celebratory pruning at the conclusion of the hearings to repeal the Stamp Act—rather than the Stamp Act protests themselves—as the moment in history to commemorate in the panel. Even though the Liberty Tree would again serve as the rallying point for future radical actions over the next nine years, including the scene of wholesale destruction of property that characterized the Boston Tea Party, Sears opted to lift out the celebratory pruning as the moment to remember. This way, the Liberty Tree could be a “harmless metaphor celebrating liberties already won instead of defiant resistance to unjust authorities.”[15]

“Law and Order,” carved into the roots of the tree, reinforced the message Sears hoped to convey with the panel. Sears claimed that following the christening of the Liberty Tree, “Law and order, charter rights and property, were nourished at its roots, and liberty ripened under its spreading branches.”[16] The phrase “law and order” is jarringly inconsistent with the kinds of crowd actions associated with the Liberty Tree, where property destruction followed effigy-burning, but a clue to why he lifted this phrase lies in how colonists thought about liberty in the 1760s. Art historian Amelia Rauser notes that “the Lockean slogan of ‘liberty and property,’ linking property rights to the most fundamental liberties of the subject, was a prominent banner in the political prints of the 1760s.”[17] In distancing the Liberty Tree from the mob actions that resulted in destruction of property, even Loyalist property, Sears sought to recode the elm with a Lockean conception of liberty that was entwined with property rights, that which he understood to be the true belief of the Sons of Liberty. As a conservative Whig who profited from property development, Sears refashioned the Liberty Tree in a light aligned with and also that proclaimed his ideological viewpoints to the rest of the city. Rather than let the Liberty Tree continue its gradual fade into obscurity, he revived and repurposed the narrative to teach a moral lesson about respecting property rights. The building, landmarked by the city since 1985, still stands to tell Sears’ story.

Maddie Webster is a Ph.D. student in the American & New England Studies Program at Boston University

[1] Robert C. Winthrop, Memoir of the Hon. David Sears (Cambridge, MA: John Wilson and Son University Press, 1886), 12.

[2] In Albert William Mann, ed., Walks and Talks About Historic Boston (Boston: Mann Publishing Co., 1916), 366.

[3] Frederick Gleason, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (Boston: F. Gleason, 1852), 72.

[4] Sears had previously subscribed 500 dollars toward the construction cost of the Bunker Hill Monument in 1823. Proceedings of the Bunker Hill Monument Association (Boston: Bunker Hill Monument Association, 1871), 25.

[5] Alfred F. Young, Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2006), 367.

[6] “City Documents #4: Communication of Hon. David Sears Respecting the Liberty Tree,” September 29, 1849, Page 4, Sears Family Papers (Box 6), Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Snow, A History of Boston, 259.

[9] “City Documents #4: Communication of Hon. David Sears Respecting the Liberty Tree,” September 29, 1849, Page 5, Sears Family Papers (Box 6), MHS.

[10] He further distances the Liberty Tree from radical action in a short disclaimer about the night of August 26, 1765, when, after rallying at the Liberty Tree, a mob pillaged and tore apart the house of Governor Thomas Hutchinson. He correctly asserts that neither the Loyal Nine nor the Sons of Liberty condoned the mob action. Sears rescues the Sons of Liberty from this act and distances them from the masses who carried out the actual destruction of the house.

[11] “City Documents #4: Communication of Hon. David Sears Respecting the Liberty Tree,” September 29, 1849, Page 4, Sears Family Papers (Box 6), MHS.

[12] Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, “X marks the spot: The Combat Zone’s hidden beauty,” Boston Globe, Apr. 14, 1985.

[13] Boston Landmarks Commission, The Liberty Tree Building Study Report (1975), 5.

[14] Snow, A History of Boston, 266.

[15] Young, Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution, 367.

[16] “City Documents #4: Communication of Hon. David Sears Respecting the Liberty Tree,” September 29, 1849, Page 5, Sears Family Papers (Box 6), MHS.

[17] Amelia Rauser, “Death or Liberty: British Political Prints and the Struggle for Symbols in the American Revolution,” Oxford Art Journal 21 (1998), 160.