J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Origin of “Live Free or Die”

Back in February, I wrote about Rep. Michele Bachmann’s reverence for the Founding Fathers, and how trying to reconcile that conviction with modern values led her into stating historical nonsense.

In March, Bachmann told people in New Hampshire, “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.“ When corrected, she posted on Facebook: “It was my mistake, Massachusetts is where they happened. New Hampshire is where they are still proud of it!” Note the scurrilous implication about states besides New Hampshire.

Last month Bachmann campaigned in New Hampshire again, and, according to the Boston Globe:
She cited the idealism of Abraham Lincoln, and of General John Stark of New Hampshire who coined the phrase that is the state motto “Live Free or Die.”
And this time I must note that Bachmann (or her speechwriters) got it right.

In 1822, John Farmer and Jacob Bailey Moore printed the first volume of their Collections, Topographical, Historical and Biographical, Relating Principally to New-Hampshire. It included a “Biographical Sketch of General John Stark” quoting some of his letters.

In 1809, a committee from Vermont invited Stark to a dinner commemorating “the action commonly called the Bennington Battle.” On 31 July, Stark wrote back from his home in Derryfield, declining the invitation on account of his age; “You say you wish your young men to see me. But you who have seen me, can tell them that I was never worth much for a show, and certainly cannot be worth their seeing now.”

Stark’s letter didn’t include the words, “Live free or die.” But the following year, the Vermont committee wrote again (in a letter published in 1860 in Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark) to say:
In your patriotic address to us last year, we regret that you tell us that the oil is almost extinguished in the lamp, and that age has rendered it impossible for you to attend, although we are again pressed by our fellow-citizens to give you an invitation to come and join in the festivities of the day. The toast, sir, which you sent us in 1809, will continue to vibrate with unceasing pleasure in our ears: “Live free, or die—Death is not the worst of evils.”
The Collections volume also printed that saying (without the comma), with the statement: “Accompanying this letter, the General forwarded as his volunteer this sentiment.” That appears to be a rare use of the word volunteer to mean a voluntary gift. So it appears that Stark sent that toast on a separate piece of paper, which was lost or else its full text would be reprinted, but the information on that paper was preserved by the second letter.

Now let’s savor the irony that New Hampshire’s motto was invented for, and preserved by, folks in Vermont. (Of course, the “Bennington Battle” actually took place in New York. See, it doesn’t pay to suggest that only Americans from one state are special.)


Heather Rojo said...

Love the Stark bobblehead! Of course, when I saw that the NH Historical Society also sold an "Old Man of the Mountains" bobblehead I knew they were onto something!

Todd Andrlik said...

Good stuff, J.L. Coincidentally, I was reading a 1774 newspaper this weekend that published a similar phrase -- "Die or be free". You can read about it here.

George Lovely said...

Note: Inverted word order in the last paragraph:

"The Collections also volume printed that...."

Bob said...

Since Bunker Hill Day is coming up, and since you mention John Stark -- famous for his defense of the American left flank -- perhaps you'd like to feature the other commander on the American left that day: Col. (later Gen.) James Reed. Reed and Stark prevented the British from rolling up the American left and enveloping Prescott's position in sort order, and so made Bunker Hill into a long and hard-fought battle instead of a quick rout (as Gage surely hoped it would be).

Reed is buried in Fitchburg, and I can pass along a photo of his fine biographical gravestone if you like.


J. L. Bell said...

I’m not sure my workload will let me take requests, but I’m always happy to look at proposals for guest-blogging.

Robert S. Paul said...

Now now, Bennington is named AFTER Benning Wentworth, and his grants were part of New Hampshire.

Of course New York disputed that, which is what you're referring to (and have posted about before), but it's just as fair to claim the battle took place in New Hampshire as it is New York.

Then again, by the time of the battle, that area had already proclaimed their own independence, calling themselves the Republic of Vermont (that was in January of '77, and the battle was in August).

J. L. Bell said...

I believe that, although the Battle of Bennington was fought for control of the territory centered on the town of Bennington in Vermont, the actual fighting took place in New York. The American troops were mostly Stark’s men from New Hampshire, but also included Warner’s men from Vermont—which had declared its own independence the month before. So it was a real mishmash.

J. L. Bell said...

Just thinking how the sentiment of “Live Free or Die” is the same as Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death,” but the latter doesn’t generate any laughs. Stark’s monosyllables make the idea more, well, stark.

Robert S. Paul said...

Stark's is also advice, maybe even a command.

Henry's words are personal, saying what he believes for himself.