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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.


While the Sons of Liberty operatives worked clandestinely, the organization was very open about its actions, publicizing activities and even publicly reporting the accounts of their meetings.[8] Subversion is often thought of as a clandestine activity, however, with subversion in the information environment too much secrecy can be counterproductive, The Sons of Liberty appeared to only use secrecy to the extent that it protected their operatives.[9] Further, much of their work was attributable to them.


Nonviolent Civil Resistance


The role of nonviolent resistance in the Revolutionary War is often forgotten or marginalized.[10] However, the response to the Stamp Act was an example of nonviolent civil resistance that not only effectively targeted a particular regime program, but also united diverse segments of society and set the conditions for continued resistance. A hallmark of nonviolent resistance is that it allows for maximum participation from elements of society that would not normally be able to participate in a violent uprising. The refusal to use stamps was widespread and included lawyers and judges who forced courts to close by refusing to use stamps. Boycotts of stamps also affected the shipping industry which had widespread effects on commerce.[11] These types of actions were also very low risk to the individual participants.


The almost universal dislike of the Stamp Act combined with the ease of resistance, i.e., refusing to use stamped products, helped to attract both elites and commoners to the Sons of Liberty’s cause and insured wider dissemination of their handbills and other products. The colonies at the time were very diverse in terms of regional cultures.


Nonviolent campaigns combined with a narrative of shared economic hardship helped unite colonies against the Crown.[12] While the American Revolution in modern popular culture is focused on the violent aspects such as battles fought in the latter part of the campaign, it could be argued that the earlier nonviolent campaigns set the conditions for victory. By the time the colonists were fighting a kinetic campaign, the widespread support to the resistance developed through nonviolent means ensured that victory was a foregone, though still hard-fought, conclusion.


Lessons for Army Special Operations Forces in Unconventional Warfare


The information campaigns waged by the Sons of Liberty offer a number of lessons for modern special operations forces, both from British failures and the revolutionaries’ success. British failure to understand the social and political dynamics was exploited by the resistance. Activities similar to civil reconnaissance and civil network development and engagement could have informed British decision-makers about the effects of British policies. Even if they were unwilling to change the policies, this information would have helped the British to develop mitigation strategies and narratives. While the Sons of Liberty utilized some clandestine techniques, the grievances of the population could have been discovered through open-source collection.


Shortsighted governance policies helped to feed a resistance narrative and drew multiple elements of society to the side of the resistance. The Sons of Liberty leveraged both social networks and the technology of that era to wield informational power. Handbills, allied newspaper printers, and word of mouth helped the resistance seize and maintain the initiative because populace sentiment mattered in colonial affairs, an error overlooked by Britain, which would ultimately bind the thirteen colonies together in collectively resisting the will of King George III.


The Sons of Liberty’s information campaign also illustrates the use of nonviolent civil resistance to support an information campaign. While there were violent incidents, the response to the Stamp Act was primarily nonviolent and economic. Refusal to use stamped products resulted in a loss of expected revenue of thousands of pounds for the Crown. This technique of resistance was low risk and ensured maximum participation leading to mobilization of the mass base. Effective nonviolent civil resistance requires both the development of civil networks and expertise in governance to organize resistance activities in the economic sphere.


Conclusion


The concept of resistance as a whole of society effort has gained interest lately and is illustrated by the development of the Resistance Operating Concept, a collaborative effort between Special Operations Command Europe and European partners to study resistance and resilience.[13] The Sons of Liberty as a case study highlights the relationship between information, governance, and civil networks in a resistance environment, and provides a model for unifying diverse segments of society against an occupying power.


Activities by the Sons of Liberty illustrate the character of resistance as a long-term, mostly nonviolent effort that relies heavily on using informational power. It could be argued that by the time kinetic campaigns started in 1775, the conflict had already reached a point where it was unwinnable for the British. The Sons of Liberty operated effectively in the information environment, seizing the initiative through the speed of communication, denying communication platforms to their adversaries, and developing compelling narratives that resonated with multiple segments of society. The information advantage gained during resistance to the Stamp Act set the conditions for continued resistance and the development of a shadow government, the Continental Congress, that was able to successfully transition into a national government.


About the Authors

Robert Schafer is a retired Civil Affairs senior non-commissioned officer who has over a decade of experience in governance and populace-centric network engagement and development activities in the CENTCOM and EUCOM Theaters. He is currently a strategic plans analyst for the Center for Army Lessons Learned, where his portfolio focuses on security force assistance. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Security Studies from National Defense University, as well as a Master of Education degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in International Relations from Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. He is a co-editor-in-chief for Eunomia Journal and a member of the advisory board for Third Order Effects.


Lieutenant Colonel Shafi Saiduddin is a Civil Affairs officer currently serving as an instructor at the Joint Special Operations University. He has two decades of experience in Army Special Operations Forces, including service in a Foreign Internal Defense/Unconventional Warfare (FID/UW) Civil Affairs battalion, and deployment experience in the CENTCOM, AFRICOM, EUCOM, and PACOM theaters. In his civilian career, he served in law enforcement and the intelligence community and now owns a risk advisory and investigations firm. Shafi is also a co-editor-in-chief for Eunomia Journal.


The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components, including the Joint Special Operations University and the Center for Army Lessons Learned.

[1] Information advantage is the operational advantage gained through the joint force’s use of information for decision making and its ability to leverage information to create effects on the information environment. [2] Standiford, Les. 2012. Desperate Sons. New York: Harper Collins, 28. [3] Ibid, 128. [4] Ibid, 138. [5] Maier, Pauline. 1991. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial radicals and the development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 91. [6] Ibid, 88-89. [7] Ibid, 163. [8] Ibid, 90. [9] Ibid, 89. [10] Bartkowski, Maciej J. 2013. Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Studies. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 299. [11] Ibid, 300-301. [12] Ibid, 300.

[13] Fiala, Otto. 2020. Resistance Operating Concept. Tampa: Joint Special Operations University Press, 2020. xv–xvi.




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