What's In a Name? Why Should We Remember?
The Liberty Tree
on St. John's College Campus,
Annapolis, Maryland

Remarks by

Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist

on the occasion of designating the Liberty Tree a Maryland Treasure
by the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000

President O'Brien, Governor Glendening, Comptroller Schaefer, ladies and gentlemen,
 

Today, we not only pay tribute to the largest known Tulip tree in America as a Maryland Treasure well worth saving, but also through the miracle of modern genetics, we commence its cloning as a living memorial to those who have struggled over the years since its birth to define the meaning of Liberty.  Indeed there is no greater symbol of resistance to arbitrary rule, and of the advocacy of representative government than a Liberty Tree.  One historian, John Higham, has even suggested that the Liberty Tree replace Uncle Sam as "a compelling symbol of American identity."

The idea of Liberty embodied in a living tree comes from Boston in 1765, when the Sons of Liberty chose a stately elm under which to voice their opposition to the Stamp Act, a British imposed tax on newspapers and official documents. They also commissioned Paul Revere to design a medal that each member wore that bore the image and the caption "Liberty Tree."  The best known and most articulate critic of the Stamp Act was a resident of Annapolis, Daniel Dulany, whose stirring words helped marshall all of the colonies to resist taxation without representation.

Undoubtedly Dulany and the Sons of Liberty also supplemented their words with such protest songs as the popular 'Liberty' first widely published in 1763, which begins

Hearts of oak are we still, for we're sons of those men
who always were ready,
steady boys, steady,
to fight for our freedom again and again.

and has a chorus

Come, chear up, my lads, to our country be firm,
As kings of the ocean, we'll weather each storm.
Integrity calls out, "Fair Liberty, see,
Waves our flag o'er our heads, and her words, are,  BE FREE.
 

The Stamp Act was repealed, but in its place came ever more repugnant and repressive laws passed by a Parliament in which Americans had no vote.   By September 1775 the Citizens of Annapolis, like their counterparts in the other twelve colonies, returned to their liberty trees to condemn the oppression and launch a resistance that would end in independence.  This time a new song was composed by Thomas Paine, the author of "Common Sense,"  which again was instantly popular.   Called The Liberty Tree,  one verse in particular resonates the meaning of liberty as succeeding generations of Americans have come to define it:

The celestial exotic struck deep in the ground,
Like a native it flourish'd and bore;
The fame of its fruit, drew the nations around,
To seek out its peaceable shore.
Unmindful of names or distinction they came,
For freemen like brothers agree:
With one spirit endowe'd they one friendship pursued,
And their temple was Liberty Tree.

The British so hated  Liberty Trees that when they occupied the seaports of Boston and Charleston they cut their Liberty  trees down.  The Boston Liberty Elm became 14 cords of wood to fuel the British campfires, while the stump of the Charleston Liberty Oak was burned to remove any trace of its existence only to have its roots made into heads of canes, one of which was presented to Thomas Jefferson.

Annapolis was never occupied and its Liberty Tree would become the town's  oldest living survivor of the Revolutionary era, ultimately playing a role in our nation's history, not unlike that of Annapolitan Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who became the revered last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

As a symbol and shelter to Liberty, the history of this Liberty Tree did not end with Washington's resignation as Commander in Chief, or with the ratification of the Treaty of Peace, both of which occurred but a short distance away in the historic Old Senate Chamber of the State House.  Over time it was visited by a number of distinguished citizens and became the site of celebration, including the 4th of July.

In December 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette returned from his home in France to speak in its shadow, having witnessed a revolution in his own country in which over 60,000 Liberty Trees were planted, and in which the Liberty Tree became a general symbol of adherence to its principles.  Lafayette came to Annapolis to thank Maryland for the citizenship bestowed upon him some forty year before, and to receive, once again, the accolades of a grateful people for the part he had played at Washington's side during the Revolution.

A hundred and four years later, in 1928,  even President Calvin Coolidge would speak here in tribute to the principles for which this tree stands.

Beginning its life as a sapling 400 or so years ago, and now  nearly 100 feet tall with branches spreading  60 feet wide,  this magnificent tree proudly symbolizes the constant struggle to define and defend what is meant by 'Liberty.'   It has weathered debilitating storms that cast its limbs on the sleeping Civil War soldiers encamped beneath it.   A fire in its trunk renewed its life but required tons of concrete and reinforcement bars to keep it standing.   To keep it alive requires careful and constant care.  An offspring today flourishes on English soil at Kew Gardens.  Soon each of the original 13 states will have a genetic duplicate, fulfilling in fact the historic motto of the Maryland General Assembly which dates back to the time of the Revolution: Crescite et Multiplicamini, Grow and Multiply.

In its most recent history, however, lies the  most meaningful testimony to this tree's distinguished past.   Under its branches successive generations of St. John's students have debated and discussed the great books of the world, held their commencements, and for recreation have battled the Navy with croquet mallets and wooden balls

As Clemenceau, France's World War I Premier is thought to have said, Liberty is the right to discipline oneself so as not to be disciplined by others.   Today we too often take liberty for granted.  Like the students of St. Johns, we should stop and think of how  we got where we are, how much pain and travail we went though to get here, and how so many people from so many different nations have managed to come together here to live in relative peace.

We live in a great nation in which liberty carries with it a great deal of responsibility.  It is most important that we pause now and then, perhaps in the shade of a great tree such as this, to reflect on what Liberty is all about and to recall  the words of Thomas Paine in 1775:

From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,
Thro' the land let the sound of it flee,
Let the far and the near,  --all unite with a cheer,
In defense of our Liberty Tree.
 

Thank you.
 

Sources:

Documentation for these remarks is available at the Museum Online on the Maryland State Archives web site: http://www.mdsa.net


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