Study Guide

The Liberty Song Meaning

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Between 1765 and 1775, Americans witnessed a lot of firsts. American merchants first boycotted British goods in 1764. American colonists violently protested British measures for the first time in 1765. In 1774, delegates from the thirteen colonies gathered for the first time to construct a united response to the British. In April 1775, colonists in Lexington and Concord exchanged their first gunfire with the British. Right in the midst of all of this, in 1768, Pennsylvanian John Dickinson wrote America’s first patriotic song.

“The Liberty Song” was written about a year after British Parliament imposed the Townshend Acts, a series of small taxes on consumer goods like glass, paper, paint, and tea. By this point, many Americans had grown tired of the steady stream of British measures designed to extract some tax revenue from them. “The Liberty Song” called on the British colonists of North America to “join hand in hand” to resist these and earlier “tyrannous acts.” After all, the song reminded them, “In freedom we're born;” in fact, many of their forefathers had traveled “thro' oceans to deserts” to ensure that they remained free (well, oceans at least). Consequently, they owed it to their children to pass on the same legacy; even though resistance carried risk, “our children shall gather the fruits of our pain.”

Dickinson was a fitting author of the historic song. Just months earlier, he had written a widely circulated critique of the British legislation troubling the American colonies. In Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, he labeled these British efforts unconstitutional. Most importantly, he argued that, while British Parliament had the authority to regulate Americans’ trade, it did not possess the power to impose taxes aimed at raising revenue.

Dickinson’s argument was based on an ancient British belief that taxes were a voluntary gift from the people to the King that could only be imposed by a legislative body in which they were represented. Since American colonists did not get to vote for members of Parliament, a Parliament-imposed tax was a form of robbery—a forced payment, not a voluntary gift—and thus was unconstitutional.

The essays brought the 35-year-old lawyer immediate fame. Dickinson would ride the reputation won with his pen to a seat in the Continental Congress and high political office in both Pennsylvania and Delaware. He would help draft the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. “The Liberty Song” is a memorable addition to his other work, a musical complement to the Letters aimed at uniting Americans in their opposition to British tyranny.

Yet while mythmakers have labeled Dickinson one of the founding fathers, the “penman of the Revolution” whose essays and song helped clarify American ideals and accelerated their unstoppable march toward independence, the truth is more complicated. A revolution would come and independence would be won, but neither Dickinson nor most Americans were thinking along those lines in 1768. In fact, while “The Liberty Song” is today celebrated as America’s first patriotic song, Dickinson wrote it as a loyal British citizen.

It’s easy to miss this point. Most versions of the song that have survived have four verses and a chorus. After a lot of inspired talk about freedom, the final verse summons Americans to join the cause that is destined to succeed. Sure, there are dangers, but the colonists must remain united. “By uniting we stand,” but “by dividing we fall,” Dickinson wrote. But success was almost preordained, for their cause was “righteous” and “heaven approves.”

When he wrote these lines, however, Dickinson was still counting on a negotiated resolution to all the controversy, one that would leave Americans proud members of the British Empire. Dickinson and his still-loyal peers were not exactly sure what this resolution would look like; perhaps the British would simply eliminate all the new taxes, perhaps they would give Americans some sort of representation in Parliament, or perhaps some sort of distinction between “legislation” and “taxation” could be drawn with all parties agreeing that Parliament had the authority to legislate for the colonies but not tax them. The details were unclear, but in 1768, virtually all Americans were thinking along these lines. Only a few “extremists” were considering independence, and they did so privately.

It’s important to remember that, while we know where all of this was heading, they did not. Through the 1760s and into the early 1770s, even as many rioted in the streets and sang “The Liberty Song,” the vast majority of Americans did not think they were marching toward independence; they were campaigning for their rights as British citizens. Nor was there any one single event that led everyone to adopt the more radical ambition. Some may have started to consider independence after British troops opened fire on unarmed colonists in March 1770. This “Boston Massacre” proved to many that violence was inevitable and that security was impossible as long as British authority (and British troops) remained in place. Others were radicalized by the theft and publication of Thomas Hutchinson’s letters in 1773. These revealed that Massachusetts’ royal governor had encouraged King George III to crack down hard on American protestors. Others lost hope in reconciliation only after the first shots were fired in Lexington and Concord in April 1775. Still others clung to hopes for a peaceful resolution even longer; only after the King spat on the colonists’ last-ditch appeal for peace in the Olive Branch Resolution did these conclude that independence was America’s only choice.

Some, like patriot leader John Dickinson, were not ready to pursue independence even then. Even after the shots heard round the world at Lexington and Concord, even after King George III rejected the colonists’ olive branch, Dickinson refused to support independence. Dickinson was no chicken. As a member of the Continental Congress, he helped to write the “Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms.” Adopted in 1775—almost exactly a year before the Declaration of Independence—this statement repeated the American argument that British actions violated American rights and proclaimed that Americans were “resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.” Dickinson knew that what the British were doing was illegal and need to be remedied, and he was willing to fight to assert that belief. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, he made good on this pledge by joining his Pennsylvania militia unit and marching to New York to assist in that city’s defense.

But Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Even while marching against the British army, he pursued reconciliation over independence. He still hoped to one-day toast the King’s health and Britannia’s glory.

“The Liberty Song” is therefore an interesting “first.” Perhaps it should be designated as America’s first patriotic song with an asterisk. While calling Americans to unite, the song called to them as members of the British Empire. And the “patriot” who wrote the song nursed hopes of reconciliation with the Crown even after the fighting began. Perhaps it’s these details that make “The Liberty Song” a suitable patriotic song, though. One of America’s defining principles is a commitment to freedom of thought and expression, and this freedom has always made America a complicated place. Moreover, ever since the Puritans landed in Massachusetts, the Catholics in Maryland, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Scotch-Irish in the Middle Colonies, diversity has been a fact of American life. America has never been a one-dimensional country with just one type of person or one set of ideas.

In other words, a truly patriotic American song should probably be a little complicated.

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