Come, join hand in hand, brave Americans all
This may sound like a simple line to you, but Dickinson actually started off his song with a pretty huge request.
There’s a lot more to this opening line than one might think. In urging colonists to unite as “Americans,” Dickinson was asking them to think of themselves as one people rather than New Yorkers or Virginians.
Even as the revolution grew closer, most colonists identified far more with their individual colonies than with “America” as a whole. Colonies developed their own characters; they had their own distinctive economies and labor systems, their own religious denominations, and even their own accents and patterns of speech. Moreover, many colonists did not view their neighbors all that favorably. Many Northerners viewed their Southern neighbors with contempt, partially because they owned slaves, but also because Northerners believed the Southern plantation lifestyle was decadent. In return, many Southerners viewed Northerners as too materialistic—too busy making money to cultivate an interest in some of the finer things in life.
Religious differences also created tensions. New England Puritans, New York and Virginia Anglicans, Pennsylvania Quakers, and Maryland Catholics all eyed one another suspiciously. And on top of these otherworldly differences, some this-worldly arguments over borders, trade, and currency also added to the tensions between colonies. Asking all of these folks to join together as Americans was no small thing.
In freedom we're born and in freedom we'll live,
Our purses are ready, steady, friends, steady,
Not as slaves, but as freemen our money we'll give.
The chorus sums up an ancient British principle: freedom and control over one’s property go hand in hand.
John Dickinson’s chorus offers more than just a catchy set of lyrics; it sums up one of the central principles of British political theory.
18th-century Englishmen believed that theirs was the freest society on earth; and critical to this freedom was the individual’s right to control his property. Property gave a man—many women could not own property—independence; it allowed him to live self-sufficiently. Without property, a person was dependent on others and not truly free.
In order to preserve this independence, property rights must therefore be protected from even the king. At the heart of English political theory was the idea that the government could not take a person’s property without his consent. Taxes may be necessary to run the government and advance the public good, but they must always be a voluntary gift from the people. If imposed without their consent, taxes were a form of robbery.
This did not mean, however, that every individual could drive the tax collector away come tax time. It meant that taxes, to be legitimate, must be imposed by a legislative body in which the taxpayers were represented. In other words, British citizens were prepared to pay taxes—their “purses are ready”—but they would pay them only as freemen, “not as slaves.” This was the main reasoning behind a popular American slogan of the time, “No taxation without representation.” Many colonists felt that they should not be taxed unless and until they held seats in Parliament and could vote on such matters themselves.
Our worthy forefathers, let's give them a cheer,
To climates unknown did courageously steer;
Thro' oceans to deserts for Freedom they came
What desert lies between the British Isles and America?
We can’t fault Dickinson for trying to add a little drama to his song, but he stretches the truth a bit in these lines. The forefathers he honors did take huge risks in coming to America, as the voyage across the Atlantic was very dangerous, but since the great majority of migrants to North America during the 17th and 18th centuries came from the British Isles, no one had to cross a desert.
African slaves represented the significant exception to this British migration. An estimated 250,000 Africans were brought to America in chains during the colonial period. Even still, the vast majority of these were taken captive in regions lining the West Coast of Africa; they were not marched across deserts.
Their generous bosoms all danger despis’d,
So highly, so wisely, their birthrights they priz’d
The language gets a bit clumsy here, but Dickinson is making an important point: liberty is the “birthright” of all British citizens.
In this line, Dickinson is still talking about the dangers the immigrants to America were willing to face in order to preserve their freedom. (Remember they crossed oceans and deserts to get here.)
But he adds an important wrinkle to the story in talking about their “birthright.” This birthright is liberty. Englishmen were tremendously proud of the liberty that they enjoyed. They believed that the British Constitution, by which they meant the form of government established by law, custom, and judicial precedent, left British citizens in possession of greater liberty than any other people in the world.
Dickinson’s inclusion of the idea here is an important reminder of what he and most colonists wanted to achieve in 1768: their rights as British citizens. Dickinson may have appealed to the colonists to unite as Americans, but their primary identity remained British.
Swarms of placemen and pensioners soon will appear
Like locusts devouring the charms of the year
No, this isn’t a reference to legions of senior citizens; Dickinson is issuing a warning about bloated government.
This line may not mean much to us in the 21st century, but 18th-century colonists knew exactly what Dickinson was talking about when he warned of placemen and pensioners.
“Placemen” were government officials appointed to a job or office by some politician trying to cultivate favor or repay a debt. According to their critics, they were dead weight on the public, providing no necessary service and just living like leeches off taxpayer dollars. Pensioners were retired versions of the same thing, as well as military officers who had passed their prime.
One group of government critics, labeled Real Whigs or Radical Whigs, argued that over the course of the 18th century the British government had been corrupted by self-serving politicians who strengthened their grip by appointing powerful people to bogus government positions and rewarding these officials with fat pensions.
These ideas were popular in America; many colonists believed that British attempts to increase taxes were rooted in the need to reward all of the cash-sucking placemen appointed to positions in agencies like the customs office. These placemen were living off of the hard work of the colonists, “like locusts devouring” the profits of the preceding year.
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall
Do you recognize this line?
This is easily the most well known line from the song. Politicians and songwriters have frequently stolen the line or tweaked it slightly to suit their purposes.
Patrick Henry, who had a nose for a catchy phrase, used the line in a speech he delivered in 1799. Almost 180 years later, the Brotherhood of Man scored an international hit with a song built around the line. In between, politicians from India to Ireland have used the line, and more than one state has adopted it as its motto.
In other words, “The Liberty Song” left an impressive legacy. But classicists know that John Dickinson does not deserve all of the credit. The line first appeared in The Four Oxen and the Lion, one of Aesop’s fables. In the tale, four pretty smart oxen learn that, so long as they stand tail-to-tail and defend attacks from all directions, they are safe from the lion. Eventually, though, they start to bicker and head off on their own, leaving them vulnerable. One ox summed up the lesson: united we stand, divided we’re lunch.
This bumper I crown for our sovereign’s health,
And this for Britannia’s glory and wealth;
That wealth and that glory immortal shall be,
If she is but just, and we are but free.
Don’t be confused by the phrasing; Dickinson wanted Americans to drink to the health of the King and the glory of Britain.
We don’t often use the word bumper in the same way that Dickinson used it here. Modern readers might imagine colonists aiming their cars at the king’s head, but in the 18th century, a bumper was a type of glass or mug. To crown a bumper was to fill it to the brim, and in this line Dickinson was encouraging Americans to drink a toast to the king and Great Britain.
Remember that the songwriter, like most Americans, still thought of themselves as loyal British subjects; they were pursuing their rights under the British Constitution. Eventually this would all change. Americans would start to see themselves as Americans, and they would base their rights on natural law, not the British constitution. But in 1768, that was still a few years away.
It’s important to note the second half of Dickinson’s toast, though, as well. When he wrote, “That wealth and that glory immortal shall be, / If she is but just, and we are but free,” he was essentially adding an asterisk to the end of his toast to Britain and the king. Dickinson was saying that everything would be just fine if the colonists were given their due rights. The veiled threat was that, if the colonists were not given their freedom, Britain’s “wealth” and “glory” might not be “immortal” after all.