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, March 28, 2021

The Influence of a Stamp Act Cartoon

The more I thought about the British cartoon “The Deplorable State of America or S——ch Government,” shown above, the more I wondered about its influence on American politics.

Scholars believe that this print, from an unknown artist, went on sale soon after Parliament passed the Stamp Act on 22 Mar 1765. Copies were shipped across the Atlantic to Boston, where John Singleton Copley evidently took one as inspiration for his own cartoon, discussed yesterday.

Did the same picture inspire Bostonians to protest the Stamp Act in other ways?

The cartoon shows a boot, representing the Earl of Bute, supposedly the politician behind the Stamp Act. (He had retired many months before.) The background of the cartoon includes a gallows, labeled “Fit Entertainment for St—p M—n.”

The anti-Stamp Act protest in Boston on 14 August featured effigies of a boot and stamp agent Andrew Oliver hanged from the great elm in the South End.

To be sure, Pope Night processions had given Bostonians annual practice hanging political enemies in effigy. But would they have extended that particular courtesy to figures connected to the Stamp Act without this cartoon?

Wherever the idea came from, hanging effigies of the stamp agents became an element of anti-Stamp Act protests all over North America, from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean.

Likewise, the cartoon labels a tree being buffeted by winds with the words “To Liberty.” On 11 September, the Boston Sons of Liberty decorated that big elm with “a Copper-Plate with these Words Stamped thereon, in Golden Letters, THE TREE OF LIBERTY, August 14. 1765.” After that, the elm was always known as Liberty Tree.

In his cartoon Copley clearly depicted Boston’s Liberty Tree, with a thick trunk and a sign reading “THE TREE OF LIBERTY / Aug. 14 1765.” But had the idea of dedicating the tree that happened to hold those effigies “To Liberty” come from the British picture?

Both Alfred Young in Liberty Tree and David Hackett Fischer in Liberty and Freedom discuss Liberty Tree as an American invention, dating to 14 Aug 1765. I can’t find any American newspaper reference to the “Tree of Liberty” or “Liberty Tree” before the following months.

Although both Young and Fischer discuss the political symbolism of trees in earlier times, going back to Britain, neither unearthed references to “the Tree of Liberty” before 1765. Thanks to the added power of Google Books, I’ve found three:
  • “Some iniquitous Ministers, who had formed Designs on the Liberties of their fellow Subjects, had found it necessary to restrain and discountenance the Trade of those they intended to strip of their Freedom; for as Poverty certainly follows an Interdiction of Industry, these Sons of Ruin find their Account in laying the Political Axe to the Root of Affluence, as the ready Means for cutting away the darling Tree of Liberty, which seldom thrives in a Land of Poverty and Want.” —Seasonable Observations on the Present Fatal Declension of the General Commerce of England, in Which the Genuine Cause of the Decay of Our Woollen Manufactures Is Particularly Considered, published in London in 1737.
  • The index of a 1739 edition of A Dissertation Upon Parties by Henry, Viscount Bolingbroke, originally published in 1735. Bolingbroke didn’t actually use the key phrase, however, instead writing: “If liberty be that delicious and wholesome fruit, on which the British nation hath fed for so many ages, and to which we owe our riches, our strength, and all the advantages we boast of, the British constitution is the tree that bears this fruit.”
  • Of all places, the second volume of Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, published in 1742: “Just as Pedlars catch Monkeys in the Baboon Kingdoms, provoking the attentive Fools, by their own Example, to put on Shoes and Stockens, till the Apes of Imitation, trying to do the like, intangle their Feet, and so cannot escape upon the Boughs of the Tree of Liberty, on which before they were wont to hop and skip about, and play a thousand puggish Tricks.”
Three uses over fifty years is hardly a lot. The rarity of the “Tree of Liberty” metaphor in British political writing, and the lack of consistency in its use, suggests that the phrase hadn’t taken root there.

Which might make this picture with a tree labeled “To Liberty” all the more influential in the last third of the eighteenth century and beyond, as the “Tree of Liberty” became an international symbol.

TOMORROW: Unless we’re getting it all backwards.

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