The Liberty Tree Protests and the Scots

Today marks the 250th anniversary of the Liberty Tree protests in Boston. On August 14th 1765, a crowd of New England colonists expressed their opposition to the Stamp Act by hanging an effigy of Andrew Oliver, an official overseeing the collection of stamp duty, from a large Elm tree on Orange Street. Historians have since marked this occasion as the beginning of the popular colonial opposition movement which ten years later broke out in Revolution.

But Oliver was not the only effigy hanged that day. Alongside the stamp officer, the Bostonians suspended a large Jack Boot with the head of a demon poking from the top. The boot and demon were a reference to John Stuart, Earl of Bute, an unpopular former Prime Minister who was widely attacked as the mastermind of the Stamp Act.

The Jack Boot Exalted - attack on Bute and the Scots in a 1763 English print © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Jack Boot Exalted – attack on Bute and the Scots in a 1763 English print © The Trustees of the British Museum

American opposition to Bute increased over the next few years, and almost always focused on his nationality. Bute was a Scot, which to both American and English radicals was simply unforgivable. Scots were associated with Jacobitism, support for the arbitrary power of the Stuart monarchy, and Catholicism. Only twenty years before the Liberty Tree protests the Scots had attempted to restore Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, a fact which Americans and the English alike were not soon to forget. In their eyes Scots were the stalwart enemies of liberty, even now attempting to subjugate the citizens of the British Empire with unjust taxation.

Rage against the Stamp Act and ensuing measures was consequently poured out against the Scots. Bute was hanged in effigy across America, from New England to South Carolina and beyond. In February 1766, Boston crowds hanged an effigy of Bute dressed in full tartan plaid, calling more attention to his Scottish nationality than before. During the evening celebrations, the Bostonians toasted to ‘A Repeal of the Stamp Act, and a perpetual Itching without the Benefit of Scratching to its Friends’. This was a reference to the notorious ‘Scottish Itch’, the common stereotype being that dirty, lice-ridden Scots were constantly scratching themselves.

Bute, in tartan plaid, and Grenville hanged in effigy below the Devil in Boston, in the Boston Gazette, February 24th 1766, issue 569

Bute, in tartan plaid, and Grenville hanged in effigy below the Devil in Boston, in the Boston Gazette, February 24th 1766, issue 569

Paul Revere, meanwhile, depicted the Stamp Act as a fearsome dragon in a satirical print, but topped the dragon off with a Scots bonnet in reference to Bute and his countrymen. Other Scottish figures circle above the dragon, firing down on the champions of liberty below.

Paul Revere, A view of the year 1765, (Boston, 1765)

Paul Revere, A view of the year 1765, (Boston, 1765)

As abhorrent (and misleading) as American Scotophobia was during this era, it undoubtedly served a useful purpose. Anti-Scottish sentiment was a truly transatlantic force, uniting American Patriots with radicals in England. Both groups opposed the overexertion of ministerial power, and both believed that Scottish influence over the government and the king was responsible for measures such as the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties and the Intolerable Acts. Scots served as both a common enemy to unite American Patriots with their supporters in England, and as a whipping boy allowing radicals on both sides of the Atlantic to express their opposition to the government without appearing disloyal. Far better to claim that a traditional Scottish enemy was secretly engaging in a fresh Jacobite conspiracy than accuse the King of treason towards the constitution.

An English print blaming the Stamp Act and a succession of other unpopular measures on secret Scottish influence © The Trustees of the British Museum

An English print blaming the Stamp Act and a succession of other unpopular measures on secret Scottish influence © The Trustees of the British Museum

Even long after the outbreak of the Revolution, Americans continued to regard Scots as their peculiar enemies. Revolutionary newspapers levied vehement attacks on Scottish cunning and barbarity in warfare, whilst prominent Scottish figures such as the Earl of Dunmore became objects of particular abhorrence.

In 1783, the Salem Gazette reflected back on America’s ‘great aversion to the Scotch people’ over the past twenty years. The paper spoke of the Scots ‘ferocious and malicious behaviour’ towards the Americans, treating them with ‘insults, inhumanity and more than savage cruelty’.  The article concluded with a recommendation that warning signs be put up on all the shores of America, with a message warning all potential Scottish migrants to stay well away:

The Scottish people is rejected,
The world besides will be accepted.
Jews, Infidels and Hottentots
We welcome here – but not the Scots.

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