How secret was the Sons of Liberty spy network if 250 years later we can reach back and find 350 names?
In John Rowe and John Adams’ diary entries of August 14th, 1769, the Sons of Liberty paraded from Boston to a Dorchester inn to celebrate their 1765 victory over the Stamp Act. The Massachusetts Historical Society has the original registry of the attendees at the celebratory banquet. The registry of guests was compiled by William Palfrey[i], a business associate of John Hancock, a masonic member of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and eventually the paymaster-general of the Continental Army.
Five years later, the British Army did not arrest a single Sons of Liberty on the night the Redcoats assembled to march to Lexington and Concord. Paul Revere and Dr. Joseph Warren were easily available for arrest at their usual place of employment and residence. Dr. Benjamin Church, a double agent, serving in Revere’s various social clubs must have fingered Paul as the nucleus of all local spy rings. On the night of his famous ride, the British officers that captured Paul Revere in Lexington knew of his association with the Sons of Liberty and his previous rides in service of Sam Adams and the Committee of Correspondence.
So the gathering of Sons. . . at the Dorchester inn, had an ulterior motive subject to great speculation.
Here are some thoughts.
Might it have been used as a receipt for reimbursement of expenses?
If the above is correct the likely person to reimburse the inn would have been John Hancock, the literal financier of the Sons of Liberty.
Why then was the list so public?
Was the parade intended to impress the British and loyalists of the strength of the Sons of Liberty?
Was it a coming out party to show their strength?
Was it a way of committing everyone to independence?
Were there so many double agents that secrecy mattered little?
Was Hancock flaunting his support at a time the British Admiralty had him on trial for smuggling, and the British Navy confiscated his schooner The Liberty?
Was there a message of significance that Otis, wanting representation in Parliament, brought up the rear and Hancock, wanting full independence from Parliament, paraded in the front chassis?
On one occasion, October 2, 1769, the second day of the first British occupation of Boston, John Rowe was publicly accosted by a British Naval captain denouncing him as a radical and advising John that he was on a list to be hanged. Yet nearly every British naval officer that sailed into Boston Harbor, on arrival, dined with John Rowe; a procurer of rope, sail, rum and other basic nautical necessities for the British Admiralty. He was far from a double agent but instead a wonderful husband, citizen, avid fisherman and man of ethics in the middle, between Englishmen on both sides of the pond.
His diary entry transcribed below, along with John Adams,’ scanned original diary page suggested that everyone knew everything about everyone.
John Rowe, Aug. 14. — The Rev"^ Mr. Whitfield came to town this day. A large
party of the Sons of Liberty dined this day at the house of Thos. Carnes
The Sons of Liberty met at Liberty Tree & dined at Robinson’s at Dorchester-they con-
tained 139 carriages on their return Mr Hancock preceeded the Company & Mr Otis
Brought up the Rear Spend part of the eve’ng at the Posee & was greatly surprised to find when I came home my Old Friend Mr John Lane at Our house He came in the Nasau [very unexpected.
Transcribed by Mitch Lapin from Google Book, Letters and Diary of John Rowe: Boston Merchant, 1759-1762, 1764-1779
John Adams diary entry:
MONDAY AUGUST 14. 1769;
Dined with 350 Sons of Liberty at Robinsons, the Sign of Liberty Tree in Dorchester. We had two Tables laid in the open Field by the Barn, with between 300 and 400 Plates, and an Arning of Sail Cloth overhead, and should have spent a most agreable Day had not the [illegible] Rain made some Abatement in our Pleasures. Mr. Dickinson the Farmers Brother, and Mr. Reed the Secretary of New Jersey were there, both cool, reserved and guarded all day. After Dinner was over and the Toasts drank we were diverted with Mr. Balch's Mimickry. He gave Us, the Lawyers Head, and the Hunting of a Bitch fox. We had also the Liberty Song-that by the Farmer, and that by Dr. Chh [Dr. Church], and the whole Company joined in the Chorus. This is cultivating the Sensations of Freedom. There was a large Collection of good Company. Otis and Adams are politick, in promoting these Festivals, for they tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty. They render the People fond of their Leaders in the Cause, and averse and bitter against all opposers. Compliments of the Mass. Hist. Soc. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/popup?id=D15&page=D15_7 or in his hand below.
Find here an overview of Boston’s radical society as studied by several historiographers.
Scanned original posted below.
“This list of the 350 Sons of Liberty who dined at the Liberty Tree Tavern in Dorchester, Massachusetts was compiled by William Palfrey, one of the participants. His grandson, John Palfrey, donated it to the Society in August 1869, on the 100th anniversary of the event. Because of the organization's secrecy, this list provides a rare glimpse into its membership.” Massachusetts Historical Society document.
Transcript available in basic text, online at the Mass Hist Soc link below.
[i] William Palfrey, on his way to France to represent the Continental Ccongress, was lost at sea in November 1780 with everyone on board.