By Shira Lurie
On May 21, 1766, when word reached New York City that Parliament had repealed the Stamp Act, colonists poured onto the Common and raised a wooden mast with a sign that read “George 3rd, Pitt – and Liberty.”[i] The liberty pole, as it came to be known, served as a rallying point for the Sons of Liberty – they gathered at its base to discuss imperial taxation, non-importation, and the presence of British soldiers in the city. The redcoats further politicized the liberty pole when they tore it down that August. This action led to a back and forth of erecting and destroying liberty poles that lasted years, ultimately culminating in the Battle of Golden Hill, which preceded the Boston Massacre by six weeks.[ii]
Similar events took place thirty-three years later in 1799. After the Adams administration passed the Sedition Law, making it a crime to criticize the government, Americans again raised liberty poles in protest. This time, though, it was their fellow countrymen, not British troops, who tore them down. For example, in Reading, Pennsylvania, a militia unit accosted Jacob Gossin, a blacksmith, for having a liberty pole outside of his house. Gossin reported that upon arriving at his home, the troop seized his workmen, pointed their pistols and swords at him, and demanded that he tear down the liberty pole or they would pull down his house. “Like highwaymen,” Gossin described, “with a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other, they approached me, threatening to dispatch me instantly, if I uttered one word.” When Gossin refused to fell his pole, the militiamen seized his axe and downed it themselves. They then rode on, carrying away Gossin’s axe with them.[iii]
By 1799, liberty poles had transformed from a Patriot emblem that colonists could rally around to an inflammatory symbol that revealed popular divisions over the American Revolution’s legacy. The conflict was no longer an imperial, but a partisan one.
In the 1790s, two political parties emerged, each with its own view of what the American Revolution had been fought for and what it had achieved. The Federalists, those who supported the Washington and Adams administrations, believed that the Revolution had established representative government and majority rule as the backbones of popular sovereignty. Americans would no longer suffer taxation without representation, as they now had a government of their own choosing. In contrast, the Republicans, the emergent opposition party, held that the Revolution had been about popular resistance to tyrannical legislation. To them, the Revolution had secured for citizens the ability to regulate government conduct through crowd action.[iv]
The Federalist vision prescribed a more limited political role for citizens that held no room for the raising of liberty poles. Federalists maintained that in a republican society, citizens voted in elections, and in between, deferred to their representatives the business of legislating. If unhappy with the actions of their representatives, they had to await recourse on the next election day. Dr. Benjamin Rush explained, “It is often said that ‘the sovereign and all other power is seated in the people.’ This idea is unhappily expressed. It should be – ‘all power is derived from the people.’ They possess it only on the days of their elections. After this, it is the property of their rulers.” Raising liberty poles may have been part of their Revolution, but they were no longer appropriate. Americans now elected their own representatives to frame and administer the laws – they did not need to oppose legislation of their own making. As such, liberty poles were no longer patriotic symbols, but rather the weapons of a rebellious minority. The Berkshire Gazette insisted, “liberty poles have been erected in the United States by those who are unfriendly to the Federal Government, and are intended as beacons to invite faction, turbulence, insurrection and rebellion in our country.”[v]
But Republicans held that popular sovereignty went beyond the mere act of electing representatives. They advocated for an activist, oppositional citizenry that aimed to impede any unjust exercise of federal power. To Republicans, government by the people meant government accountability to the people. And when representatives did not defend their constituents’ needs, citizens had a right to seek change through extra-institutional protests. The Federalist notion of surrendering sovereignty in between elections was “absurd,” argued one Republican, and was “supported by a presumption, that a government of representatives can never mistake the true interests of their constituents.” Liberty poles offered a traditional method of protest that citizens could legitimately employ when government overreached. Those who tore them down echoed the actions of the British redcoats. “Is our condition in such circumstances better than when we were the degraded colonists of England?”, asked the Aurora General Advertiser. “The only difference is that then our tyrants were foreign here they are domestic.”[vi]
In their conflicts over liberty poles, both Federalists and Republicans enacted their different visions for citizens in a republic. Republicans raised about one hundred liberty poles throughout the 1790s to protest Federalist policies, like the Sedition Law, as tyrannical. They employed a Revolutionary symbol because they believed that the Revolution’s legacy guaranteed them the right to oppose harmful legislation that encroached on their liberty. Federalists denounced Republican liberty poles as an illegitimate form of political expression because they challenged an elected government. They worried that Republican opposition would undermine majority rule, and so they tore down the liberty poles, hoping to strip them of their symbolic power and inhibit Republicans from using them as rallying points. Liberty poles offered a tangible symbol through which Federalists and Republicans could channel their debates about the Revolution and its legacy. By either erecting or destroying them, grassroots partisans on both sides fought to enact their own ideas of government by the people.
Cotlar, Seth. Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.
Newman, Simon P. Parades and Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
Smith, Barbara Clark. The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America. New York: New Press, 2010.
Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
[i] “Pitt” refers to William Pitt, a former Prime Minister and prominent Member of Parliament who advocated for the Stamp Act’s repeal.
[ii] New York Gazette, or Weekly Post Boy, August 14, 1766, January 15, 1770, February 5, 1770. New York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, February 12, 1770. See also David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 38-47.
[iii] Aurora General Advertiser, May 24, 1799.
[iv] Barbara Clark Smith, The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America (New York: New Press, 2010). Alan Taylor, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
[v] Benjamin Rush, “Address to the People of the United States, 1787,” in Republication of the Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, ed. Hezekiah Niles (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1876), 234-5. Berkshire Gazette, February 13, 1799.
[vi] William Findley, History of the Insurrection in the Four Western Counties in the Year M.DCC.XCIV, (Philadelphia: Samuel Harrison Smith, 1796), 49. Aurora General Advertiser, April 25, 1799.