On May 20, 1766, news reached New York of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Two weeks later the city celebrated the news on the King’s birthday. A great pole with twelve tar barrels at its top was erected, and twenty-five cords of wood were placed at its base. As twenty-five guns fired a salute, the royal standard was raised, and the great bonfire set ablaze as the crowd cheered.
Meanwhile, the Sons of Liberty planted a rival pole, a Liberty Pole, in what is now City Hall Park. The Sons of Liberty pledged resistance against another round of taxation without representation.
The Liberty Pole was to be their rallying point. It was a tall wooden pole, planted in the ground and capped with red felt hat – a Phrygian cap— the sort of hat worn by freed slaves in the time of the Roman Republic. New Yorkers of the day were well aware of how, after Julius Caesar was assassinated, a Phrygian cap placed atop a pole at the Forum announced to all that Rome had been freed from Tyranny.
The new Liberty Pole stood provocatively near the barracks of the soldiers of the Crown, who had to pass it every day. On August 10th, a band of resentful soldiers from the 28th Regiment cut the Pole down.
The following day a crowd assembled to replace the Pole. The soldiers intervened, and a melee broke out. Complaints were made, but the authorities did nothing.
A second Liberty Pole was quickly erected. It stood for a few days, and then got cut down. Within two days, a third Liberty Pole was raised. This time Governor Moore ordered the soldiers to back off and allow the Pole to stand.
The following spring citizens gathered on the Commons to celebrate the first anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. That night, after the Sons of Liberty had retired for the night, the pole was again leveled to the ground.
The next day the Sons of Liberty set up a more substantial Pole, one wrapped with iron bands. That night an unsuccessful attempt was made to cut it down; the following night an attempt was made to blow it up with gun-powder. For three successive nights the Sons of Liberty fended off attacks on the Pole.
The Governor again ordered the soldiers to desist from this game, and the Pole stood undisturbed for three years, until December, 1769, when the Assembly acquiesced to the Quartering Act and agreed to fund some of the upkeep of the soldiers.
The Sons of Liberty were outraged. They started holding protests on the Commons, burning effigies and making inflammatory speeches. Afterwards they would hole up at Montagne’s Tavern on Broadway, opposite the Fields where the Pole stood. On January 13, 1770, when several patrons came out of the tavern they discovered smoke wafting from a lit fuse by the pole. Yelling “Fire!” they interrupted the culprits – from the 16th Regiment – from completing their mischief. The discovered soldiers proceeded to ransack the tavern instead, beating up the waiter and breaking windows and china.
The Sons of Liberty called for another meeting the next Wednesday, but the soldiers finally succeeded in blowing up the Liberty Pole the night before. When the destruction was discovered, a mob of citizens approached the barracks. The soldiers lined up with drawn bayonets, but officers corralled them back inside.
On January 19, handbills began appearing around town, provocatively defending the soldiers and taunting the Sons of Liberty. When Isaac Sears apprehended two soldiers posting bills, he marched them to the mayor’s house. A crowd gathered, and then 20 soldiers showed up to rescue their friends. Alarmed by the crowd, the captive soldiers told their friends to leave, which they did, but the crowd followed them, harassing them with epithets.
When the soldiers reached Golden Hill, a small hill where wheat was grown, another group of soldiers arrived in reinforcement. The soldiers turned and faced the angry crowd. One of the soldiers cried out, “Draw your bayonets and cut your way through them!”
They attacked the crowd, lunging at anyone who came across their path. Francis Field, a Quaker bystander, was slashed across his right cheek. A tea-water man driving his cart was knocked down and stabbed, as was a fisherman and a sailor. A boy going for sugar was cut him on the head with a cutlass, and the soldiers lunged with a bayonet at the woman who came to protect the boy.
Finally, British officers arrived and were able to get control of their men, fortunately before anyone was killed.
Six weeks later, the first deaths would arrive at The Boston Massacre.