"The Liberty Song" (1768)

"The Liberty Song" (1768)

"The Liberty Song" was written in 1768 when John Dickinson set out to reflect on the political strife caused by the Townshend Acts of 1767, the latest in a series of British crown taxes levied on the Colonies. Dickinson wrote the words to fit the famous music of the anthem of the British Royal Navy, "Heart of Oak," composed in 1759 by Dr. William Boyce (1711-1779). Boyce's music was first performed in London in Harlequin's Invasion with the words that famed British actor David Garrick (1716-1779) penned to celebrate the three great victories of that year in the Seven Year's War. Dickinson freely adapted Garrick's lyrics, especially in the chorus, and Dickinson's friend, Arthur Lee, in Boston enroute to England for law studies, also contributed two stanzas.

When Dickinson wrote his lyrics, he undoubtedly knew well the patriotic association with the Navy of the words and the music of "Heart of Oak." Perhaps because of this, he also used the song to comment on his colleague John Hancock's ship, called Liberty, which had been seized by the authorities for smuggling. This seizure, along with anger over the acts, precipitated riots and led to the declaration of a suspension of English imports by Boston merchants in August, 1768 to begin December 31.

First published in the Boston Gazette in July 1768, "The Liberty Song" later appeared in the Boston Chronicle of August 29, 1768. It was sung throughout the colonies at political meetings, dinners and celebrations; it is likely that "The Liberty Song" was the first song to express American patriotism. The most famous passage in the song is the source of a phrase known to many Americans centuries after: "By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall." Less considered is the final stanza, which calls for toasts for "our Sovereign's Health" and "Britannia's Glory and wealth." Such loyalty notwithstanding, Dickinson still worried, in his typical conservative fashion, that his first version had been too fiery.

An original copy of the Boston Chronicle printing is housed in the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The song more recently appeared in a book of songs published in 1937 by the College, called Songs of Dickinson. In 2001, the Dickinson College Choir recorded a new rendition of the song on compact disc.

The original patriotic song "Heart of Oak," incidentally, remains in the British patriotic lexicon and today is the official march-past of the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy.

Image Source: The Boston Chronicle (Sept. 5, 1768)

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Dickinson College Archives
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