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, May 03, 2019

The Emergence of “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”

On 14 Dec 1775, the Pennsylvania Evening Post shared this article with its readers, including many delegates to the Second Continental Congress:
The following inscription was made out three years ago on the cannon near which the ashes of President Bradshaw were lodged, on the top of a high hill near Martha Bray in Jamaica, to avoid the rage against the Regicides exhibited at the Restoration:

Ere thou pass, contemplate this CANNON,
Nor regardless be told
That near its base lies deposited the dust of
Who, nobly superior to all selfish regards,
Despising alike the pagentry of courtly splendor,
The blast of calumny, and the terrors of royal vengeance,
Presided in the illustrious band of heroes and patriots,
Who fairly and openly adjudged
Tyrant of England,
To a public and exemplary death,
Thereby presenting to the amazed world,
And transmitting down, through applauding ages,
The most glorious example
Of unshaken virtue, love of freedom, and impartial justice,
Ever exhibited on the blood-stained theatre of human action.
O, reader,
Pass not on till thou hast blessed his memory,
And never————never forget
That publication coincided with the American colonies’ decisive turn away from George III. In short order Patriots decided the king was a tyrant rather than their last hope for relief from ministerial tyranny. The role of John Bradshaw (1602-1659, shown above) in the execution of Charles I became something to admire rather than to regret. The epitaph was reprinted in many American newspapers in late 1775 and early 1776.

A few months later, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the epitaph’s final line—“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”—be a motto on the official seal of the United States. (That never happened, as I discussed back here.)

In 1794, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles repeated that line as a refrain A History of Three of the Judges of King Charles I, saying he’d seen it in print in 1775.

But the biggest fan of the “Rebellion to tyrants” line was Thomas Jefferson.

TOMORROW: Jefferson takes up the motto.

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