Beginning in 1766, the liberty pole symbolized dissent from Great Britain, but over the years it took on different meanings for the people who raised them.
The first liberty pole in America was actually a tree. On Aug. 14, 1765, the Sons of Liberty hanged stamp collector Andrew Oliver in effigy from the boughs of a large elm in Boston. Forever after it’s been known as the Liberty Tree.
When someone raised a red flag – a gift of John Hancock — at the top of the tree, it meant the Sons of Liberty should meet. British soldiers later hacked it down when they occupied Boston.
As tall as 170 feet high, the liberty pole sprang up in towns throughout New England as the British Parliament imposed unpopular taxes and restrictions on the American colonies. Sometimes it stood next to a liberty tree. Sometimes it replaced the tree.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, commenting on symbolic reisistance to Great Britain, wrote, “In this department of silent propaganda no single venture paid richer dividends than the Tree of Liberty.”
The Liberty Pole
The Romans erected the first liberty pole after assassinating Julius Caesar. The murder plot’s leaders met at the Roman Forum, where someone placed a Phrygian cap from a freed slave on top of a pole to show the Romans won their freedom from Caesar’s tyranny.
In the British North American colonies, the liberty pole began to spring up in response to specific events. Shutesbury, Mass., for example, erected a liberty pole on Sept. 5, 1774, the day the Continental Congress first met.
When the pole (or tree) was capped with a red Phrygian cap or a flag, it meant the townspeople should assemble and vent their anger with the British government.
The liberty pole reappeared even after the Revolution ended. It showed resistance to the Whiskey Tax and support for the French Revolution. When the Sedition Act passed, the liberty pole reappeared — and disappeared. Federalists who supported the Sedition Act cut them down in Wallingford, Vt., and in Vassalboro, Maine.
By the mid-19th century, people erected liberty poles as focal points for Fourth of July celebrations or as symbols of loyalty to the United States. Sometimes they stood for symbols of dissent and had nothing to do with patriotism.
The Phyrgian cap survives too — on the official seals of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Army and the state flags of West Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
Here, then, are six places where a liberty pole once stood. If you know of any others, please mention them in the comments section.
On May 19, 1774, 1,000 residents of Farmington, Conn., erected a liberty pole, burned an effigy of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and a copy of the Boston Port Act.
By October 1774, Connecticut newspapers reported, “Liberty-poles from 100 to 170 feet high, are erected and erecting in most of the towns of Connecticut.”
Newtown, Conn., put up a liberty pole to commemorate the nation’s centennial in 1876. It wasn’t the town’s first liberty pole, though; a resident remembered one in his childhood, sometime in the 1830s. The wooden pole fell to the weather and the town replaced it several times. Today, Newtown’s flagpole stands as the town’s most prominent landmark.
Old Town, Maine
A disagreement among two factions of the Penobscot Indian tribe resulted in two liberty poles on their reservation.
Sometime between 1848 and 1859, the Indians on the Penobscot Reservation in Old Town, Maine, split into two groups. It started when the old sachem, Atien Swassin, was accused of drunkenness, adultery and corruption. A public council convicted him and removed him from office, but his followers remained loyal to him. They formed the Old Party and erected a liberty pole and flag.
Those loyal to the new sachem formed the New Party and also erected a liberty pole and flag.
The two groups argued and fought until the Old Party sent a messenger to several Indian tribes in Canada, inviting them to participate in a fight on the reservation, also known as Indian Island. The tribes refused, but held a Great Fire Council to try to reconcile the two parties.
The council sent two envoys to the Penobscot Reservation, and they agreed to abolish the parties, cut down the liberty poles and live in peace. But a wily leader of the Old Party persuaded the New Party to cut down its liberty pole first. After they cut it down, three members of the Old Party hugged their liberty pole so now one could cut it down without cutting their arms.
Eventually the three Old Party members repented and apologized, and the two parties managed to get along after that, according to Sprague’s Journal of Maine History in 1917.
The liberty pole appeared in many Massachusetts towns, including Taunton, Concord, Middleborough, Barnstable, Granville and Vineyard Haven. But as far as we know, only Bedford still commemorates the raising of the liberty pole two Saturdays before Patriots Day.
The tradition began in 1965, a year after the Bedford Minuteman Company of reenactors formed. Now, minutemen reenactors from all over New England gather on the Town Common and march with fife and drum to Wilson Park. There they watch a minuteman shinny up a 25-foot pole and place a red cap on it. Then a British soldier disrupts the celebration.
The Bedford Liberty Pole Capping Parade and Ceremony is one of the opening event for all of the minuteman companies of the region;
A tall flagpole with an eagle, a shield and a carved Phrygian cap marks the spot of Portsmouth’s first liberty pole. It lies between what is now Prescott Park and Strawbery Banke.
During the run-up to the American Revolution, a tidal inlet separated the two places, and a swing bridge connected them.
On Jan 9, 1766, New Hampshire’s Sons of Liberty erected a liberty pole by the bridge to show their opposition to the Stamp Act. They hoisted a banner that read, ‘Liberty, Property and No Stamp.’ They also forced the stamp tax collector, George Meserve, to resign.
From then on, Portsmouth called the bridge Liberty Bridge.
At that point, Portsmouth also filled in the inlet, dismantled the Liberty Bridge, tore down dilapidated old buildings and created Prescott Park and the Strawbery Banke house museum.
The flagpole, though, still stands in the original spot.
Newport’s patriots assembled under the liberty tree on a triangular piece of land at the corner of Thames and Farewell streets. William Read had donated the land to William Ellery and other Sons of Liberty shortly after the repeal of the Stamp Act. There, the patriots held mock funerals for liberty and hanged unpopular Loyalists in effigy. They also put up a liberty pole at a distance from the tree and put their colors on both whenever appropriate.
When the British occupied Newport, they cut down the liberty tree. Newport patriots planted an oak tree in its place to commemorate their victory in the American Revolution. It lasted until the Civil War, and another oak was planted in 1876. That one lasted only 21 years. The fourth liberty tree, a leaf beech tree, was planted in 1897 and still stands. In 1919, Henrietta C. Ellery deeded the property and the tree to the city. It is now William Ellery Park, a small pocket park.
Capt. John Wyman was a belligerent Revolutionary War veteran extremely proud that he had fought at Bunker Hill. After the war he moved to Dummerston, Vt., and said he wanted to be buried on a hill on his farm. He got his wish, at least until the town moved his body to a cemetery. While he rested on his farm, however, townspeople erected a liberty pole next to his grave.
However, we couldn’t figure out where the old revolutionary had been buried, and Dummerston bears no sign of a liberty pole. Nor could we find evidence of liberty poles in Bennington or Wallingford, where Vermonters had erected them. We hit pay dirt, though, in the Lower Waterford section of St. Johnsbury.
The Caledonian Record reported on May 17, 1861, “People of all parties assembled at Lower Waterford to participate in the ceremony of giving to the breeze the American flag … and to declare their devotion to the constitution and the Union.” They formed into a hollow square around the liberty pole, and ‘the flag was brought forth and flung to the breeze…’
Howard Coffin, in his book, Something Abides: Discovering the Civil War in Today’s Vermont, refers to a photo that shows the flagpole in front of the Congregational Church across from the old hotel. Both are still standing.