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Boston Raises a Liberty Pole, and Half the Town Gets Drunk

In January 1793, Bostonians raised a liberty pole at the intersection of Kilby, Water and Battersea streets.

"Raising the liberty pole," 1776 / painted by F.A. Chapman ; engraved by John C. McRae, N.Y. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“Raising the liberty pole,” 1776, painted by F.A. Chapman; engraved by John C. McRae, N.Y. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

But the American Revolution had ended. Why a liberty pole in 1793? And didn’t Boston already have a Liberty Tree?

The liberty pole celebrated the news that the French were about to topple the monarchy and win their own liberte, egalite and fraternite.

Liberty Pole Party

And how they celebrated! Bostonians roasted an ox and brought it to the square, its horns mounted atop the 60-foot liberty pole hoisted to honor the French. A wagon brought 800 loaves of bread. Then came another loaded with hogsheads of strong punch.

The celebrants paraded through town to the homes of Gov. John Hancock and Lt. Gov. Sam Adams, where they raised a toast. The parade lasted all day and into the early morning hours. An estimated half the adult population of Boston got drunk that night.

Roman Origins

Romans erected the first liberty pole after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The murder plot’s leaders met a crowd of Romans at the Roman Forum, where someone placed a Phrygian cap from a freed slave on top of a pole to show the Romans were free from Caesar’s tyranny. (A Phrygian cap is a soft, pointed cap with the tip bent forward.)

Centuries later, dozens of colonial American towns erected liberty poles as a symbol of dissent against England. When they capped the pole with an ensign, usually a red cap or a flag, it meant the townspeople should assemble and vent their anger with the British government.

The poles often started trouble between patriots and loyalists. In Sandwich, Mass., for example, loyalists took down the liberty pole when leading patriots left town. The patriots then arrested them upon their return.

Illustration of The Liberty Tree in Boston, 1825. From A History of Boston, the metropolis of Massachusetts, from its origin to the present period, by Caleb H. Snow.

Illustration of The Liberty Tree in Boston, 1825. From A History of Boston, the metropolis of Massachusetts, from its origin to the present period, by Caleb H. Snow.

Liberty Trees

Patriots erected liberty trees instead in other towns, including Boston, Providence and Acton, Mass. A tall elm at the corner of Essex and Washington streets in Boston, for example, started as a rallying point against the Stamp Act for the Sons of Liberty.

Boston did have a liberty pole, though, during the Revolution. Patriots put it up on Prospect Hill during the Siege of Boston. They used a 76-foot ship’s mast taken from the British warship HMS Diana after the Battle of Chelsea Creek.

 

liberty pole Seated_Liberty_Quarter_with_Arrows_and_Rays

Many 19th century silver coins show a seated Liberty holding a pole with a Phrygian cap on top of it. They’re known as United States Seated Liberty coinage.

The Town of Bedford, Mass., re-enacts the raising and capping of its liberty pole in an annual ceremony. Rochester, N.Y., lights its pole at the beginning of every Christmas season.

And today, Boston holds an annual Bastille Day celebration every July 14.

All that's left of Boston's Liberty Tree. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

All that’s left of Boston’s Liberty Tree. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

This story was updated in 2019.

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