Revolutionary War Liberty Trees and Poles

Each, axe in hand, attacked the honored tree,

Sweating eternal war with Liberty.

But e’er it fell, not mindless of its wrong,

Avenged it took one destined head along.

A Tory soldier on its topmost limb,

The genius of the shade looked stern at him,

And marked him out that self-same hour to dine,

Where unsnuffed lamps burn low at Pluto’s shrine.

 

First Liberty Tree
First Liberty Tree

Boston, 1765, August 14th at dawn, two effigies were discovered in a large elm tree in an enclosure where Orange and Essex Streets intersected (present Washington and Essex). This became the first Liberty Tree. One effigy was of Andrew Oliver[1] was hung from a branch, and the other was the devil holding a sign ‘Stamp Act’ and peeking out from a British cavalry jackboot, this in dishonor of Lord Bute[2], whom New Englanders thought was responsible for the hated Stamp Act. The British, upon discovering the effigies, promptly cut them down, leaving the tree standing. Later that year, on December 16th, the day King George opened Parliament, the Boston Sons of Liberty placed Andrew Oliver at the head of a long procession. On a cold wet morning, he was escorted to the Liberty Tree to stand in the rain under the same bough in which he had swung in effigy. The ground under the tree was appropriately named ‘Liberty Hall.’

This 120 year old elm became what became soon known as Liberty Trees which spawned many more such ‘liberty trees’ throughout the colonies. Even in Boston, other liberty trees sprung up. On May 4, 1766 John Adams wrote: “Sunday. Returning from meeting this morning and saw for the first time a likely young button-wood tree, lately planted on a triangle made by three roads. The tree is well set, well guarded, and has on it an inscription, ‘The Tree of Liberty, and cursed is he who cuts this tree.’

The first Liberty Tree remained standing until the siege of Boston, 1774, when loyalists cut it down. The Sons of Liberty consoled themselves by knowing, or at all events by believing, that a loyalist soldier had met his death in falling from the branches while engaged upon what the patriots regarded as an act of sacrilege.   A verse was written to commemorate the cutting of the first Liberty Tree that begins this article. A Liberty Pole was later put in its spot.

Raising the Liberty Pole in New York City, 177...
Raising the Liberty Pole in New York City, 1770 pen and ink drawing by Simitiere depicting one of six liberty poles to be alternately raised and later removed over ten years in confrontations among the Sons of Liberty and British troops stationed in the city prior to the American Revolutionary War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Liberty poles joined the Liberty Trees to symbolize colonial objection to England’s treatment of her North American colonies. What is considered the most renowned Liberty Pole was erected in New York City in 1766 in the Commons at the north-end of Broadway. Sir Henry Moore, Royal Governor of New York, gave his approval to erect the pole when he was told it was to celebrate the repeal of the hated Stamp Act. When the act was appealed, large crowds gathered around the Liberty Trees and Poles. In Boston, the Liberty Tree was decorated with lanterns until it could hold no more.

The Sons of Liberty, an organization that grew from opposition to British taxation and duties and spearheaded unrest, used the Liberty Trees and Liberty Poles to symbolize their concerns for freedom to express their own interests. After the Massachusetts Circular Letter, the Liberty Tree would have 92 branches and the stubs of 17 others.

After the Stamp Act was repealed, England, determined to collect revenue from the colonies to help offset the huge expense they encountered during the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War), set in place the Townshend Acts which placed an import duty on glass, paint, lead, and tea as well as establishing the American Board of Customs. In response, the Massachusetts General Court issued a circular letter which was meant to be widely distributed, or “circulated”. In the Letter, Samuel Adams[3] argued that the Townshend Acts were unconstitutional because the colony of Massachusetts was not represented in Parliament. The Letter was sent to the representative bodies of the other colonies.

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarri...
The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the colonies, ordered the Massachusetts General Assembly to revoke it. The vote in the assembly was overwhelmingly in favor of not repealing the Letter, 92 – 17.   Governor Francis Bernard, Royal Governor of Massachusetts, ordered the assembly to be dissolved. This led to mob violence that attacked customs officials making it impossible for them to do their duty. In response, Lord Hillsborough sent four regiments of British soldiers to Boston, arriving in October of 1768. Ninety two branches and seventeen stubs on the Liberty Tree became a symbol of this vote and defiance to the crown.

This 92 symbol was also connected to the Liberty Pole. The pole would be raised by 92 Sons of Liberty. The size of the pole, 45 feet, was determined by another symbol, the infamous Issue No. 45 of John Wilkes’s[4] periodical that he founded in 1762. The periodical frequently made outspoken attacks on George III and his ministers. In the 45th issue, which came out in 1763, Wilkes criticized the King’s speech made from the throne. He was immediately arrested. He fled to France, but later on returned to eventually take his seat in Parliament in 1774 where he championed the American cause.

Last Liberty Tree
Last Liberty Tree

The last remaining Liberty Tree from the Revolutionary war was a 400 year old tulip poplar on the campus of St. John’s College, Maryland. It was cut down on October 25, 1999. It was heavily decayed and was irreversibly damaged by Hurricane Floyd. Several hundred people gathered in a solemn ceremony as crews began removing the tree. Wreaths were laid at the base of the tree and at the base of a 100 year old offspring that stands about a hundred yards away. After a bell tolled 13 times for each of the original colonies, crews went to work with chain saws. It took several days to bring down the whole tree.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

RESOURCES:

Bancroft, George. The History of the American Revolution, Vol. II. 1852: Richard Bentley, London, England.

Boatner, Mark Mayo. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. 1966: Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

Gordon, William. The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of America, Vol. I.  1801: Printed for Samuel Campbell by John Woods, New York, NY.

Trevelyan, Sir George Otto. The American Revolution, Vol. 1. 1921: Longsman, Greene, & Co., New York, NY.

Internet: 1999: Associated Press. The Last Liberty Tree. www.greatseal.com/liberty/lastlibertytree.html

[1] Andrew Oliver was a wealthy Massachusetts merchant who was commissioned by the crown to implement the Stamp Acts. Hanged and burned in effigy, he never administrated the highly unpopular act.

[2] Lord Bute (John Stewart,3rd Earle of Bute. Scottish nobleman who served as British Prime Minister from 1762 – 1763. Though George Grenville, successor to Bute, pushed the Stamp Acts through Parliament, Americans placed most of the blame on Bute.

[3] Sam Adams, resident of Boston, was a statesman and early patriot who championed the American cause for independence.

[4] John Wilkes was an English politician and journalist who argued passionately for the American cause in Parliament throughout the Revolution. As unrest was brewing in the Americas, Wilkes openly criticized the King. He was arrested in 1765 and for the next nine years was exiled to France before retuning to Scotland and ultimately being allowed to return to his seat in Parliament.

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