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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Monday, February 26, 2018

“The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” in the Early Republic

On 6 Nov 1804, more than a quarter-century after the previous newspaper publication of “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” that I’ve found, a letter was addressed to the Virginia Argus in Richmond.

It read:
Mr. [Samuel] Pleasants,

When you can find a convenient corner of your paper, please republish the enclosed most excellent SONG composed, it is supposed, by General WARREN, who fell at the battle of Bunker’s Hill, in the year 1775, thereby you’d oblige

A SUBSCRIBER.
The newspaper published the letter and the accompanying lyrics.

I haven’t seen that publication; the newspaper database I can access is missing some issues of the Virginia Argus from November and December 1804. But the Republican Star of Easton, Maryland, published the letter and lines in its 1 Jan 1805 issue in a section headlined “Apollo’s Fount.” (The “Poets Corner” had gotten fancy.)

I’ll discuss the attribution tomorrow. Today I’ll stick to the question of textual variation. The lines that appeared in the Republican Star were based on what Edes and Gill had first printed in 1770 with three variations.

First, the stanzas that began “We led fair Freedom hither” and “Torn from a world of Tyrants” were switched in order.

Second, “And blast the venal Sycophant” had become “And blast the venal Tories,” sacrificing metre for a more specific villain.

Finally, that last verse changed to:
Some future days shall crown us,
The masters of the main!
Our fleets shall speak in thunder,
To England and to Spain!
When all the Islands, o’er the ocean spread,
Shall tremble and obey,
The Sons, the Sons, the Sons, the Sons
Of brave America.
No longer did that conclusion speak of “giving Laws and Freedom” to other countries—this verse was now a non-ideological boast of naval power. Instead of “their Lords of brave America,” this version celebrated “the Sons.”

Most striking, the target countries weren’t “subject France and Spain”—not in the newspaper with the Jeffersonian word Republican in its name. (The Virginia Argus was also Jeffersonian.) Here the young nation’s big rivals were England and Spain.

TOMORROW: Dr. Warren, songwriter?

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