Many of us recognize the reference to the Tree of Liberty from the Thomas Jefferson quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” We’ll look at that mention a little later, first let’s remind ourselves about the Liberty Tree.
We understand that “Remember the Alamo” was a cry that rallied the people, recalling the battle and lives lost that took place there. “Remember the Maine” was a reminder of the tragic loss of life that took place during the Spanish-American War. “Remember the Lusitania” from WWI and “Remember Pearl Harbor” from WWII, and, of course, for many of us today, we “Remember 911.”
Rally cries are important for many reasons, but most important is the unity it gives, a single purpose. Such was the Liberty Tree in Boston.
Patriots were understandably upset over the Stamp Act in 1765. They met at a tree where they engaged in defiant acts, hanging Andrew Oliver (the enforcer of the Act) in effigy and mocking two British ministers they believed responsible for the Act. In time, the tree became a gathering place for protests and meetings, and a pole was erected nearby upon which a flag would be raised to announce a meeting. When the Act was repealed in 1766, a celebration was held at the tree.
A copper sign was fastened to the trunk of the tree that said, "This tree was planted in the year 1646, and pruned by order of the Sons of Liberty, Feb. 14th, 1766." As word spread, other towns in the colonies began naming their own Liberty Trees and the Tree of Liberty quickly became a familiar symbol of the patriot movement. Thomas Paine published an ode to the Liberty Tree in 1775.
Over the years leading up to the revolution, many other protests and rallies were held including a protest of the Tea Act. The British and Loyalists made the tree an object of ridicule and then during the Siege of Boston, it was cut down and used as firewood. The group led by Job Williams knew full well what the tree meant to the patriots, and cut it down to spite them. They likely never dreamed what this act of offense might do as a rallying cry.
After the siege, returning patriots erected a Liberty Pole at the site. During a visit in 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette asserted, “The world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree, so famous in your annals.” However, over time, it has been largely forgotten. Today a plaque reading, "SONS OF LIBERTY, 1766; INDEPENDENCE of their COUNTRY, 1776" is displayed in a park near the site.
What does all this mean to us today? I mentioned the letter in which Thomas Jefferson referred to the “Tree of Liberty.” At the time, Jefferson was in France. These were the days leading up to the French Revolution. In fact, a liberty tree was planted in France with the knowledge of what the Boston tree meant to patriots.
Before he got to the famous part of the letter, Jefferson discussed the idea of rebellion and why it took place. His observation was that people then were much as they are today— uninformed. He said that while a rebellion might be done under honorable motives, it could be founded in ignorance. However, “If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” In other words, the public outcry is good to start a dialog and discussion.
His reference is to Shay’s Rebellion. I’ll not try to explore the dynamics of that period here, but it was very instrumental in setting the direction of the Republic and the writing of the Constitution. I don’t believe Jefferson was trying to foment another revolution with his comment. I believe he was pointing out that the very threat or possibility of an armed rebellion causes politicians to temper what they might do otherwise.
The original rally cry for our Republic was for liberty. Make no mistake about it, this nation was not unified over this effort. Our revolution was essentially a civil war between Tories and Loyalists against the Sons of Liberty, the Patriots. As I watch the recent protests and increasing violence, I worry for our Republic. There are certainly those who would see it pushed over the edge to a fully socialistic form of government, just as there are those who would see it pushed to a nationalist type governing entity. Neither of these is compatible with our Constitutional Republic.
Cooler heads must prevail and any armed response must be a last resort, as it was with the Sons of Liberty.
I’ll let Jefferson close my comments. From the above-mentioned letter:
“....what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”