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, September 15, 2015

Friends of the Royal Government on Liberty Tree

I want to go back to that first report of the naming of Liberty Tree in Boston on 11 Sept 1765. That happened on a Wednesday, which meant the first newspaper to carry the story was Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter—which supported the Crown.

Knowing that political perspective helps in interpreting some details of its description:
on the Body of the largest Tree was fixed with large deck Nails, that it might last (as a Poet said, like Oaken Bench to Perpetuity) a Copper-Plate with these Words Stamped thereon, in Golden Letters, THE TREE OF LIBERTY, August 14. 1765. A Report of these Decorations collected a great many of the Inhabitants who were at Leisure, where they were saluted with the Firing of a Number of Chambers, and regaled with a Plenty of Liquor.
The line “like Oaken Bench to Perpetuity” first appeared in a mock ballad titled “A Full and True Account of How the Lamentable Wicked French and Indian Pirates Were Taken by the Valiant Englishmen,” published A Collection of Poems by Several Hands (Boston: 1744). The verse containing that line was popular enough that John Randolph of Roanoke quoted it in a letter in 1820.

The “Poet” has been identified as either the Rev. Mather Byles or the merchant Joseph Green (shown above, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts), both men known for their wit and their support of the Hutchinson-Oliver party. The newspaper report’s emphasis on the protesters being “at Leisure” and its mention of “Plenty of Liquor” likewise show that this wasn’t a positive description of that demonstration. It was a sneering complaint.

Indeed, the newspaper went on to complain:
It should have been mentioned above, that after 1 o’Clock some of the Train of Artillery brought down some Cannon, placed them before the Town-House and fired several Rounds; but we hear that this was done without any Order or Leave from the Commander in Chief [i.e., Gov. Francis Bernard], or even giving Notice to the Governor and Council, who were then sitting in the Council-Chamber, of their Intention.
That would indeed have been startling for Bernard and his advisors to suddenly hear cannon go off right outside. After all, it was only a month since the the first anti-Stamp Act rally had led to a march through the ground level of that same building.

TOMORROW: The Boston Gazette responds on Monday.

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