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.
John Dickinson wrote “The Liberty Song” in mid-1768 as the tensions between the American colonies and the British government were rising. Only recently a crisis had been avoided when the British repealed some offensive legislation aimed at the colonies. Now they were at it again, and this song was set within this climate of renewed tensions.
British attempts to strengthen control over their North American colonies and extract some revenues from them had begun in 1763. These measures, which included the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, had met considerable resistance in the colonies. Colonial assemblies had passed critical resolutions, American merchants boycotted British goods, essayists like John Dickinson wrote reasoned critiques of British policy, and in a couple American cites, colonists rioted.
In response, the British retreated. They repealed the most inflammatory measure, the Stamp Act, but they refused to surrender the underlying principle. Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, insisting that they retained the authority to legislate in all cases whatsoever. Americans celebrated the repeal but worried over the meaning of the Declaratory Act—until 1767, when the British lobbed another set of taxes across the Atlantic at the Americans. The taxes imposed on goods like tea, paint, and glass under the Townshend Acts were relatively small, but they were rooted in a political theory that Americans considered illegal: Parliament claimed that it could tax the colonists, while the colonists claimed that only their colonial assemblies, in which they were directly represented, could tax them.
Dickinson wrote his song as Americans organized to protest the Townshend Acts, just as they had the Sugar and Stamp Acts. In the months ahead, colonial assemblies would pass critical resolutions, merchants would launch a boycott, pamphleteers would crank out literature, and in some places, Americans would resort to violence and riots. But Dickinson wrote as this response was being debated. Perhaps for that reason his lyrics express optimism that the tensions between Britain and America could be resolved and that Americans could join in toasting Britain’s glory once their freedoms had been established.