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 10, 2019

The Full History of “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God”

The epitaph for John Bradshaw that Bryan Edwards sent to another gentleman in January 1775, quoted yesterday, varies slightly but significantly from every other surviving example of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph.”

All the others have the same wording, though they differ in line breaks, punctuation, and capitalization, as was common at the time. Here are the differences between that set and the version Edwards supplied (on the right):
  • Ere thou pass, contemplate this (CANNON / marble):
  • despising alike (the pagentry of courtly splendor / what the world calls greatness),
  • who (fairly and openly / openly, and fairly), adjudged
  • Charles Stuart, (Tyrant / King) of England,
  • thereby presenting to the (amazed / astonished) world,
  • and (never, never / never) forget
The weightiest difference is the first. Most versions describe the epitaph as already carved on the cannon that marked Bradshaw’s grave. Edwards’s January 1775 letter instead describes a cannon planted near the grave over a century before and proposed a “cenotaph” of “marble”—which hadn’t actually been created.

I suspect, therefore, that the epitaph never was engraved on metal or stone, and that all the reports that it actually had been carved were too wishful. The monument never got past the planning stage. “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” always and only existed on paper.

Edwards’s letter doesn’t give a date for when the epitaph was composed, but it seems to have been a few years before 1775. The letter refers to a moment when Edwards “repeated” those lines to his correspondent, showing that he was spreading them around. He may also have revised the lines since first distributing them, which would account for the difference between this version and the one that circulated before appearing in print in Philadelphia, months after the letter.

Samuel Johnson defined the word “cenotaph” to mean “A monument for one buried elsewhere.” In using that word in his letter, Edwards accepted that Bradshaw’s remains hadn’t actually been buried on Martha Brae in Jamaica.

It’s interesting to put the 1775 letter alongside Edwards’s remarks about the Bradshaw story in his 1793 History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies. Together they suggest that he had become even more dubious that Bradshaw’s “dust” was ever brought to Jamaica. Edwards also appears to have grown less excited, after the American War and the early French Revolution, about the whole notion of “Rebellion to tyrants…”

This, then, is my hypothesis of the origin story for the line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”:
  • The sentence was coined by Bryan Edwards and perhaps some friends on Jamaica in the early 1770s as part of a tribute to the English republican John Bradshaw.
  • Edwards and possibly his friends shared the epitaph in letters to other parts of the British Empire, including Annapolis and London by 1773.
  • Thomas Hollis copied the epitaph into his historical collection by 1774, believing that it had already been engraved on a cannon in Jamaica and posted in houses in many other American colonies.
  • Benjamin Franklin copied the epitaph and brought it to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, showing it to Thomas Jefferson and others. Those men believed that the epitaph was a relic of seventeenth-century English republicanism.
  • Franklin or a colleague supplied the epitaph to the printers of the Pennsylvania Evening Post in December 1775, and it was finally put into print.
  • Jefferson entertained doubts about the epitaph’s authenticity in the mid-1770s but eventually accepted it and used its final line as a motto.
  • Meanwhile, Edwards had come to doubt the lore of Bradshaw’s body, and in 1793 tried to downplay the whole story in his history of the Caribbean.
Under this theory, “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” was at no point a deliberate hoax, knowingly passed on with false information. But people who liked the lines were too quick to assume that they had already been engraved at Martha Brae, then that they had been composed back in the seventeenth century. The man who knew the most about the real story, Bryan Edwards, cast doubt on it in print without ever coming out and admitting his own role in launching the tale.

The line “Rebellion to tyrants is resistance to God” is thus not a creation of Thomas Jefferson, nor a hoax by Benjamin Franklin. It’s most likely a sincere product of the political movement in Britain’s North American colonies resisting new Crown measures in the 1760s and 1770s—but not on the mainland.

(Shown above: A medal minted by Virginia in 1780 to give to Native allies displaying the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”)


Don Carleton said...

I suppose no one one the VA government thought that native leaders receiving those peace medals might take that motto to heart? Ironies abound!

J. L. Bell said...

I have to assume that in the middle of the war the Virginians felt certain their Native allies understood that the only "tyrant" was over in London. Him with his tyrannical Proclamation Line.

The Artful Dodger said...


J. L. Bell said...

Please read the postings. My argument is that this text is not a hoax invented by Benjamin Franklin, as American editors have decided, but rather a proposal from the early 1770s by Bryan Edwards of Jamaica that he circulated in the British Empire months and probably years before Franklin mentioned it to colleagues at the Continental Congress.

Edwards never came out and said he wrote the lines, and by the end of the century he was wary of the enthusiasm behind them. However, his January 1775 letter shows he was repeating them independent of Franklin.

The Franklin and Jefferson Papers editors indeed came to the conclusion that Franklin invented the whole story, but that doesn’t account for Edwards’s letter or the text in Thomas Hollis’s papers. It also reflects our national penchant for celebrating Franklin as a trickster, coming up with hoaxes and seeing through the hoaxes of others. In this case, I think Franklin was too quick to believe that Edwards had gone through with his plan to create a monument in Jamaica.