Sons of Liberty: Case Study for Information Advantage in Resistance Movements

(Editor's Note: Originally published last fall, but in the spirit of American Independence and growing interest in the evolution of modern information forces that support resistance movements, we are republishing it for the 4th of July)

By Robert Schafer and Shafi Saiduddin

In 1765, the British Parliament authorized the Stamp Act, which is recognized today as one of the catalysts of the American Revolution. This act imposed a direct tax on stamped papers that were produced in London but mandated for use in the American colonies for printing legal documents, newspapers, and magazines. The purpose was to increase revenue for the British to pay for their soldiers garrisoned in the colonies, but the colonists claimed to have no foreign enemies and thus held the presence of foreign soldiers to be unnecessary. The resistance generated by the Stamp Act would soon be immortalized in the famous slogan “no taxation without representation.” The Stamp Act fueled the growth of the Sons of Liberty, one of the first organized resistance movements in the colonies.

The British either did not account for, or did not care about, colonial resolve in matters pertaining to harsh governance policies dictated by the Crown, which was over three thousand miles away and unable to govern the colonies effectively as a normal state would be expected to govern its populace. The British considered the colonies as their possessions and felt no compunction about enforcing taxes that made lives easier for those back in London. Lacking the capacity or will to understand the civil environment and engage civil networks, Britain yielded information advantage to the Sons of Liberty.[1] Thus, the purpose of this article is to add to the discussions about information related capabilities consolidating gains in the information environment where irregular warfare, if not unconventional warfare, is being waged by resistance movements.

It is important to understand that the Sons of Liberty were not the shadow government prior to the Revolutionary War. That was the function of the Continental Congress. That said, this case study demonstrates that within a disgruntled, literate populace, conditions were ripe for a burgeoning insurgency to exploit grievances through targeted propaganda to gain an information advantage. This holds lessons for modern information forces like Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs in terms of integrating efforts. The case here is that during unconventional warfare operations, all lines of efforts to defeat the current regime need to be mutually supported. This means that Civil Affairs, as subject matter experts of civil considerations, must also understand how to influence the populace as well as leverage civil networks to conduct resistance activities.

The Civil and Political Environment

Philadelphia was the largest city in the American colonies.[2] The British considered Philadelphia as the center of gravity for colonial politics, but it was in Boston, where British mishandling of the populace would eventually seal their fate in the colonies. The Sons of Liberty having representation in each of the larger cities, like Philadelphia and New York, essentially grew from the local resistance movement in Boston.

In October of 1768, British General Thomas Gage arrived in Boston at the request of the English Parliament to quell the unrest in the American colonies. Gage’s initial actions, which were considered heavy-handed to the colonists, solidified the resolve of those colonists who sought to end the perceived injustice of King George III’s colonial policies. There were many colonial Tories sympathetic to the English Crown, but the increasing mob violence did little to give Gage sufficient reason to trust anyone.

John Hancock was a wealthy colonial Loyalist and merchant with secretive trade deals with Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, until his loyalty was questioned by Hutchison, then later by Gage. It is important to note that if the British government had not humiliated Hancock by impounding his trading ship Liberty and confiscating its entire cargo, the early stages of the American Revolution would have gone largely unfinanced, and the Sons of Liberty would have earned a mere footnote in history as a failed resistance movement.

The British were looking for more specific opportunities to recoup expenses incurred in the Seven Years War, to some degree at the cost of colonial labor and sacrifice. Still, Hancock was paying a price for his associations with Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.[3] This demonstrates how colonial powers, legitimately empowered in their own minds to preside over the domestic affairs of colonies, may ignore the importance of potentially powerful influencers like Hancock. Failure to engage and develop Loyalist networks, combined with policies that negatively affected neutral segments of society, set the conditions for the resistance to gain and maintain information advantage.

The Stamp Act was an unsuccessful and highly unpopular attempt by the British to squeeze more money from the colonies. Its repeal in 1766 did not end the growing mistrust and antagonism between Crown and colonials as taxation continued. Other streams of taxation on colonial labor, imports and exports increased the already growing discontent in the New World. The colonists saw this as a matter of principle: “a tax on a penny is the same as a tax on a pound.”[4]

The British maintained their authority through the appointment of governors, military officers, and customs officials. In cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, local politics were delegated to elected colonial officials, but their decisions seldom mattered to the British government or even to their Tory supporters. The response to the Stamp Act was swift as mobs were formed and often went to the homes of the customs administrators intent on destroying property or even murdering these officials and their families. Unpopular colonial policies, frequently dictated from England, continued long after the Stamp Act was repealed.

The Quartering Act, signed into law by King George III on March 24th, 1765, added further insult to the already irritated colonists as the Act now required the colonists to house and feed British soldiers in barracks constructed at the expense of the colonists. The colonists had been more than willing to quarter the soldiers between long marches during the Seven Years War, but as it was now peacetime and it seemed an unnecessary burden imposed upon them by the Crown.

Informational Power and Information Advantage

The modern U.S. military may soon adopt the terms Informational Power and Information Advantage to describe how information is used to fight an adversary, however, these concepts are timeless and have been used in warfare for centuries. Colonial America possessed a number of characteristics that made fighting in the information domain particularly appealing for a resistance movement. Most of the colonists, especially in the larger cities, like Boston, were literate. The Sons of Liberty took full advantage of this literacy through the publication of handbills that were meant to incite anger against unpopular British policies or the frequent misconduct of British soldiers now occupying these large urban centers. The handbills could be prepared and disseminated quickly giving the resistance the advantage of speed in the information environment compared to the British who relied on communications through Loyalist newspapers and statements by government officials. Sons of Liberty actively developed networks among printers and many of the influential newspapers were printed by members of the Sons of Liberty, denying the Crown a platform, and allowing the resistance to dominate the narrative space.[5] The Sons of Liberty maintained an extensive network that included multiple classes of society. This mass base strategy enabled them to develop narratives that resonated across colonies with diverse political agendas.[6]

The British ultimately could not satisfy the colonists. Hostilities between the populace and the soldiers grew quickly and it was a mistake to think that quartering soldiers amongst a hostile populace was a good idea. On March 5th of 1770, fistfights broke out in Boston and some soldiers ended up shooting into an angry crowd that had been assembling throughout the evening, protesting the boorish behavior displayed by the British soldiers. The Boston Massacre, as it came to be known, gave Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty the information advantage they sought, yet Adams had no desire for further violence as that “would only support the claims of the loyalists that Boston was an ungovernable nest of radicals and firebrands.”[7]

The call for revolution and the expulsion of British troops would soon be a common theme, printed in the press, but in Boston, the colonial shadow government was already in place. If there was one thing the Sons of Liberty did well, as any successful insurgency should seek to do, was that they moved freely among the populace. Their identities were unknown to the local British forces, with the assurance that through careful selection of its members, information and disinformation would eventually reach the targeted individuals for whom the information was intended.