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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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Adding Liberty Tree Site to the Freedom Trail?

Last week, Boston’s Weekly Dig ran a story by Matthew Wilding about plans for expanding Liberty Tree Park in Boston, and questions about whether it should be added to the Freedom Trail.

Liberty Tree was a large elm in the South End of colonial Boston, at the corner of what are now Washington and Boylston Streets. There was only one road out of town at that time, so everyone coming in by land passed that corner. On 14 Aug 1765, the small political club called the Loyall Nine hung effigies in the tree to protest the Stamp Act—the first mass political demonstration of what would turn into the American Revolution.

Later that year, after another protest had ended with a mob ripping apart Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion in the North End, the Loyall Nine and the town’s established politicians moved to encourage more peaceful actions. They made the elm into a symbol of honorable resistance to new imperial laws, naming it “Liberty Tree” and nailing on a brass plaque.

In the following decade, Liberty Tree was the site of many mass public meetings. Eventually the Whigs erected a flagpole through its branches, which they often decorated with banners and lanterns. During violent night-time protests, crowds went there, too: it was a necessary stop when a mob carted around a man covered with tar and feathers.

Other towns up and down the American coast designated their own “Liberty Trees.” Charlestown, South Carolina, for example, chose a spreading live oak. (Newspapers in each town occasionally called the local tree “the Tree of Liberty” but rarely if ever “the Liberty Tree.”)

In late summer 1775, after the war had begun, British soldiers and some Loyalist locals chopped down Boston’s Liberty Tree. But as a symbol it endured, eventually adopted by reformers in other countries, as Al Young traces in his latest book, Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution. Lafayette stopped by the site in the 1820s when he was making his endless tour of America (where he could live more cheaply than in France). And a possibly fanciful engraving of the elm appeared in many history books.

Given the importance of Liberty Tree in pre-Revolutionary politics, why wasn’t the site included in the Freedom Trail in 1958? One possible answer, discussed in the Weekly Dig, is that powers-that-be dislike commemorating mass political activities, as opposed to august institutions like King’s Chapel (largely Loyalist in 1775) or the Old State House (government at work).

I’m not convinced. After all, the Freedom Trail has a stop at the site of the Boston Massacre, a violent and still sometimes controversial confrontation between locals and soldiers. And, though it wasn’t part of the trail (and is now closed for renovation), the Boston Tea Party ship commemorated an illegal, anti-commercial protest.

The main reason for deemphasizing the Liberty Tree site, I suspect, was that it no longer contained a stately tree to look at. And what was visible at that corner wasn’t thought to be appealing to tourists—unless they wanted erotic literature, in which case the Liberty Tree Bookstore would have been happy to sell it to them. (This is not the same Liberty Tree Bookstore that sells political books online.) For a couple of decades that neighborhood was Boston’s “Combat Zone,” a red-light district. Now that technology has helped Americans bring pornography into the home, where it belongs, the neighborhood is gentrifying and might actually be a good place for a historic park.

But it’s still half a mile from the current start of the Freedom Trail on Boston Common. And the 2.5-mile trail is meant to be short enough for people to walk comfortably in a day (though many folks leave the Charlestown sites for later). So for people to add the extra half-mile, there would have to be more to see than a bas-relief plaque on a wall.

Plans for expanding Liberty Tree Park have been in the air since 1974, as far as I can tell—that’s when the area first got that label. As the millennium approached, an organization called Boston 2000 announced plans to develop the park and lobby for adding it to the trail. There was a grant from Save America’s Treasures. But, as the Weekly Dig article says, the momentum faded. The city estimates that the park would need more money than is now available, and plans for the neighborhood are up in the air. Perhaps by 2015, which will be the semiquincentennial of the first protest under Liberty Tree?

(Thanks to Charles Bahne for supplying me with a copy of the Weekly Dig article.)


Anonymous said...

I'm actually the author of the article in question, and I would like to clarify, as this blog post is rather misleading about the point of view, that neither I nor the Dig suggested that the site was left off of the trail, but rather that Alfred Young suggested that that was a possible reason, which is pretty clear in the article. Although the link is currently unavailable on the Dig site, you can still see the article as it appeared HERE to see for yourself. I also would say that your point on the tea party helps validate this argument, and further that the massacre has been often sanitized and altered - a thing difficult to do with the liberty tree.

Matthew Wilding

J. L. Bell said...

Then I feel I should clarify that the blog post doesn't say that Dig story suggested that the Liberty Tree site was left off the trail for political reasons, only that it “discussed” that idea.

The fact that the story was headlined “Willfully Forgotten” (a quote from Dr. Al Young) could give the impression that the newspaper was playing up that theory over others. But that was, of course, the editor's decision.

Thanks for the new link to the article's text.

Anonymous said...

John C. Miller's biography of Sam Adams calls it an oak not an elm, probably one of the many things Miller got wrong. Another useful source on this is Arthur M. Schlesinger "Liberty Tree: A Genealogy" in The New England Quartley Vol. 25 No. 4 (Dec, 1952) pp. 435 to 458.