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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Friday, February 23, 2018

The Further Evolution of “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song”

As I discussed back here, in April 1774 the New-York Journal published a new version of “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” that was actually less strident about Britain than the original. It may have been revised to reflect Whig talking points.

Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy picked up those New York lyrics for the “Poets Corner” in its 26 May 1774 issue, thus bringing the song back to its town of origin.

The next newspaper to run the verses in its “Poet’s Corner” was Timothy Green’s Connecticut Gazette of New London for 24 Feb 1775. That was another rewrite of the original lines, but in a different way. Instead of talking about “Americans,” for example, this version praised and addressed “America.”

The song now started:
Let’s look to Greece and Athens!
And there’s proud mistress Rome;
Tho’ late in all their Glory,
We now scarce find their Home:…
The verse that began by describing Americans as “Torn from a world of tyrants” now started, “Turn then, ye lordly Tyrants…”

And this original verse
We led fair FREEDOM hither, when lo the Desart smil’d,
A Paradise of Pleasure, was open’d in the Wild;
Your Harvest bold AMERICANS! no Power shall snatch away,
Assert yourselves, yourselves, yourselves, my brave AMERICA.
We led fair Freedom hither,
Unto a Desart wild;
A Paradise of Pleasure,
Soon opened and smil’d;
Your Harvest’s rich, AMERICA,
No Power shall snatch away.
Preserve, preserve, preserve your Rights Brave N. America.
Finally, the original’s final line about “their Lords, their Lords of brave AMERICA” had turned into “the Laws, the Laws, of NORTH-AMERICA.”

All told, that New London version feels like it was written down from memory by someone who had sung the song a few times. It doesn’t feel like a revision by the original author.

A couple of months later, war had broken out. On 8 May 1775, Ebenezer Watson’s Connecticut Courant of Hartford published “A Song Compos’d by a Son of Liberty” with the date “February 13, 1770”—Josiah Flagg’s original concert. Appropriately, that version had the same lyrics that Edes and Gill had published in their North-American Almanack five years before.

And then the song apparently went underground again for the war.

COMING UP: Who wrote “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song”?

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