Editor’s note: This is the 15th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.
Cannon fire echoed across the Charles Town peninsula, the militia marched through the streets … and Christopher Gadsden led his mechanics to victory at Robert Dillon’s tavern.
In the spring of 1766, word reached the city that Parliament had repealed the hated Stamp Act, launching the greatest celebration Charles Town had seen in years.
The overjoyed Assembly sent its respects and official thanks in a letter to King George III, but reserved their highest praise for William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham.
The incoming prime minister had fought for the colonists publicly, arguing that it was unconstitutional for Parliament to tax them. The Assembly decided to honor their defender by commissioning a statue of him, and made plans to install it at the most prominent location in Charles Town: the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets.
(Today, the statue is in the lobby of the Charleston County Judicial Center, not far from its original home).
But as the colonists celebrated, Gadsden sat stewing in Dillon’s tavern near the corner of Broad and Church streets. This small victory, he knew, was not the end.
That fall, Gadsden convened a meeting of his mechanics, the local branch of the Sons of Liberty, ostensibly to congratulate them for their success in defeating the Stamp Act. But his true purpose was to warn them against further attempts at subjugation.
The 26 men met just outside of town, under a great oak that would come to be called the Liberty Tree. It was a place where they could speak freely, without fear of being overheard, and it soon became the regular meeting spot for these would-be revolutionaries.
And, at the first meeting, Gadsden proved prescient.
“On this occasion Mr. Gadsden delivered to them an address, stating their rights, and encouraging them to defend them against all foreign taxation,” one of the men present, George Flagg, later wrote. “Upon which joining hands around the tree, they associated themselves as defenders and supporters of American Liberty, and from that time the oak was called Liberty Tree — and public meetings were occasionally holden there.”
The next year, 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts — a series of taxes that made the Stamp Act look mild. The new taxes were levied on any number of commodities, including paint, British china, tea and, of course, paper. As Robert Rosen writes in “A Short History of Charleston,” the acts also allowed for searches without warrants to discourage smuggling untaxed goods.
The idea was not only to raise money, but to pay the salaries of British officials in America and, perhaps most importantly, show the colonists that they were indeed subjects of the crown, and could be taxed accordingly. It went over about like you’d expect.
Protests erupted throughout the colonies, and by June 1767, planters and other elites of Charles Town were joining the meetings at the Liberty Tree. Even Henry Laurens was coming around. In the late 1760s, British officials seized two of his ships after alleging customs violations. Laurens fought this outrage quite publicly, once even challenging a customs official to a duel.
Men from nearly every social strata in the city were united under the Liberty Tree. It was there they agreed to join the northern cities in boycotting British goods. They now had a common enemy.
There were still loyalists in the city, and there always would be, but they were quickly outnumbered by the men meeting regularly at the Liberty Tree.
The tree plays a small but important role in the city’s history, but by today’s standards it hardly would be considered outside of town: It stood less than a block north of Boundary Street (Calhoun Street today).
Nic Butler, the Charleston County Public Library’s historian, wrote a richly detailed two-part history of the Liberty Tree in June. You can read it at www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine.
Charles Town unveiled its first public sculpture, the Pitt statue, on July 5, 1770, the year of the city’s centennial. By then, however, the Liberty Tree had become a monument in its own right … and one that better reflected the colony’s attitude toward Britain.
Neither of these Charles Town landmarks would survive the coming conflict unscathed.