John Dickinson had a way with words, but he was no composer, so he turned to a well-known march for the music to his “Liberty Song.” The march was “Heart of Oak,” a recently written tribute to the British military. In fact, eventually the song would be designated the British Navy’s official march.
“Heart of Oak” was written in 1759 by composer William Boyce and lyricist David Garrick. A string of British military victories during the Seven Years’ War—the French and Indian War to us Americans—inspired the pair to compose a tribute to the “wonderful year” and the “soldiers and sailors” who “drub them at shore . . . and drub them at sea.”
Dickinson kept only a couple of lines from the older song; Garrick had also urged singers to stand fast in the face of danger (“steady, boys, steady!”). Dickinson also cribbed a critical line for his chorus. He wrote, “Not as slaves, but as freemen our money we'll give;” Garrick wrote “to honor we call you, as freemen not slaves.”
Ten years later, the British musical origins of the song would appear ironic, and British Naval officers would find the appropriation of their march infuriating. But in 1768, Dickinson probably did not intend irony, much less disrespect. He held out hopes that the rift between the colonies and Great Britain would be healed. His selection of a patriotic melody was most likely intended to express a common bond between the British and Americans: their shared success in the recent war against France.
We can’t actually be certain about that, though. In fact, some have suggested that the tune and the title were coupled to take a shot at the British Navy, so to speak. In May 1768, British customs officials, backed by the muscle of the HMS Romney, seized the Liberty, a cargo vessel owned by Boston merchant—and patriot—John Hancock. Americans believed that the charges against Hancock were fabricated. As a result, many colonists protested and then rioted. Dickinson, however, may have chosen to protest in song. By using a British naval march to sing about “liberty,” he offered a comment on the unconstitutional depths to which the once proud navy had fallen.