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"The Liberty Song."

The Liberty Song.

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The Liberty Song
This song first appears in the Boston Gazette, in July of 1768, written by none other than John Dickinson, author of the "Pennsylvania Farmer" letters. Dickinson writes the words (with two verses supplied by Arthur Lee of Virginia) shortly after learning that the Massachusetts Legislature had refused to rescind the Circular Letter telling his Massachusetts friend James Otis, "I enclose you a song for American freedom. I have long since renounced poetry, but as indifferent songs are very powerful on certain occasions, I venture to invoke the deserted muses." Dickinson sets the words to the anthem of the British Royal Navy, "Heart of Oak," composed in 1759 by Dr. William Boyce.

Questions to Consider

1. Why are particular words capitalized? What is the significance of those words?

2. What is the picture the song writer paints of the hardships and circumstances faced by America's "forefathers"? Why is this included in the song?

3. Explain the meaning of the repeated chorus.

4. What does the song-writer ask the colonists to do? Why do you think he would say this will be done "Not as SLAVES but as FREEMEN"? What might the author be insinuating?

5. Why would Dickinson purposely use a well-known tune for his new ballad? Why that specific tune?

6. Look at the last stanza. Why is Dickinson toasting "our Sovereign's Health" and "Britannia's Glory and wealth"?

Further Exploration

7. Research the history of this song, from its beginnings to its present use. What explains its adaptation for so many different purposes?

8. Examine the history of another song that has been used by those supporting a specific cause and explain the elements which give the song power.

9. This song marks one of the earliest uses of the phrase "by uniting we stand, by dividing we fall". What does it mean? Why was it of such significance to the writer in 1768? In what other historical times has it been used in one form or another?

10. Dickinson wrote again to Mr. Otis, saying, "I enclosed you the other day a copy of a song composed in great haste. I think it was rather too bold." He wanted a verse inserted between stanzas four and five with the following words:

How sweet are the labors that freemen endure,
That they shall enjoy all the profit, secure –
No more such sweet labors Americans know,
If Britons shall reap what Americans sow.


What do Mr. Dickinson's worries tell us about his political stance? Why would he be concerned about the possible inflammatory nature of the words? What would this new verse accomplish? Were the requested changes ever incorporated into this newspaper version of the song?

11. Imagine you read this song in a newspaper. How does it make you feel? Are you moved by it? Is it persuasive? Persuasive enough? Write a short biographical sketch of who you are as a reader and write two or three paragraphs on your immediate reaction to the piece and what actions, if any you will take as a result of reading it. Would you read this piece and act upon the author's call to action?

12. Could you make the same requests as the author in a more persuasive fashion? Write your own broadside trying to convince colonists to take patriotic actions. Include an image in it to make your piece more effective and attention getting.

13. Liberty was also the name of John Hancock's ship, which had been seized by customs officials for smuggling in June, 1768. That action in turn led to mob violence in Boston in which both people and property sustained injuries. What role did this episode play in the growing tension between British authorities and colonists in Boston and elsewhere?