By Kathryn van der Pol
As Constitution Day, September 17th approaches, I would like to share some ideas about how to honor this important date in our nation’s history.
First of all, something about myself. I am a retired Classics teacher who spent 24 years teaching Homer, ancient Rome, the rise of Western Civilization, and translated Orations of Cicero. For the past eight years, I’ve been an entrepreneur jointly with my husband, running a historic auto repair shop in Houston. I guess you could say, if it’s old, it’s right up my alley.
While I don’t claim to be an academic expert on American history, it is a passion and knowing classical history as well as I do, it all fits together with my background–at least to my thinking.
So, back to ideas for September 17th.
This year consider planting a Liberty tree. If you live in a place where you can’t plant a tree, make one (see below). Let’s literally celebrate liberty with a tangible symbol. Why not do this with your family and friends?
Now, you might ask. What did the Liberty tree mean to our Founders?
Liberty trees were gathering places years before the American Revolution. They began when colonists began to be concerned about the excessive regulations, taxes, and lack of representation. In other words, they were concerned about the encroachment of government and loss of freedom.
The concept of the Liberty Tree is particularly relevant given the ongoing revelations about U.S. government surveillance of American citizens, the targeting of tea party associations for IRS scrutiny, and the intimidation tactics being used to silence the press. For you see, this Liberty Tree is a symbol of some of our most sacred inalienable rights to associate, to speak freely, and to demand that our grievances be addressed.
The very first Liberty Tree was an elm tree in Boston. For those familiar with the city it was located at the corner of Essex and Washington Ave. Today, there are two memorials to honor our first liberty tree. One display is a bas relief on the third floor of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles Building. At street level, you would miss it unless you knew to look up.
The other is like a bronze tombstone planted in the sidewalk.
The men who met under the first Liberty Tree called themselves the Sons of Liberty. They were men like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, organizers of the Boston Tea Party who led the fight for American Independence. But they began long before 1776. I will explain this momentarily.
The Liberty Tree grew in popularity and spread to many other communities up and down the eastern seaboard, so that nearly every town in the 13 original colonies had a Liberty Tree.
This is why we need to bring back this tradition. It’s a tangible reminder that freedom isn’t free and that people who love freedom must be willing to stand up. It’s also a way to honor those first freedom fighters and inspire ourselves to learn more of our history.
Even the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World has a Liberty Tree. In fact Walt Disney designed a Liberty Square with a Liberty Tree in mind (though he died before it was actually built).
It’s often overlooked that these theme parks of Walt Disney were to be a light to the world of the American story of hard work, sacrifice and innovation. In fact, when Disneyland opened in 1955, he made this point on opening day in his speech to the first park visitors, and this is memorialized in a welcome plaque as you enter the park.
“To all that come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. “Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America…with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
July 17, 1955
When Disney began Disneyland in California, part of his strategy to bring people to the theme park was to produce movies. One of the very first Disney movies (1957) was Johnny Tremain, a story about a young man living in Boston who became a member of the Sons of Liberty. The Liberty Tree plays a central role in the movie.
Enough about Disney.
So what started the Liberty Tree tradition in Boston was a practical joke and tax protest aimed at a man named Andrew Oliver. Poor Andrew had the unfortunate job of providing the stamps for the hated stamp tax. No one liked the stamp tax. Any piece of paper, even a newspaper or playing card was taxed and to show that a tax was paid, you had to buy a stamp. Andrew Oliver sold the stamps.
On August 14, 1765, this tree was chosen to hang Andrew Oliver in effigy along with another effigy of a large boot with devil’s head peering out. A few days later, on September 11th, someone placed a large copper plate across the trunk. It was over three feet long with large gold letters across the trunk and read “The Tree of Liberty.” Thus the Liberty Tree tradition was born and after that, the Sons of Liberty organized almost all their meetings in this square.
Over time, British leaders throughout America were concerned about the colonists’ meetings and passed laws to forbid groups from associating in homes. But by meeting out in the open, British soldiers would not suspect seditious activities were taking place under their noses. In Boston, the clever colonists hoisted a red handkerchief on a pole attached to the tree to indicate the day of meeting. Eventually, the British had enough of the colonists’ liberty trees. Whenever they identified one, they cut it down.
The Boston Liberty Tree was cut down after it had stood 129 years. It was not cut down by soldiers but by British sympathizers angered at these troublesome revolutionaries. But cutting the tree did not dampen the spirits of the Sons of Liberty. They continued to meet in the same spot even though the tree was now a liberty stump.
None of the original liberty trees survive today. Those that the British did not destroy, nature took its course. There is one tree, however, that did survive almost to the 21st century.
This was the famous Annapolis tree in Maryland. It was a tulip poplar whose lofty branches graced 96 feet high on the campus of St. John’s College. After standing for more than 400 years, (some say 600 years), it was nearly blown over by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. After realizing the extent of damage, campus officials had it removed.
What made this tree so special is not only the fact that it is the last Liberty Tree, but that it was the tree where George Washington is known to have visited with Maryland patriots to discuss their grievances against British rule.
Lafayette camped by this tree with 4000 French soldiers on the way to Yorktown to bring reinforcements to General Washington. Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner, was a graduate of St. John’s College and no doubt rested or even studied under its shady branches.
In fact on July 4th, 1812, there was a meeting under the venerable tree, during our “Second war for Independence” also called the War of 1812. This time, it was the sons of the fathers of the American Revolution who were meeting here.
On this day four weeks after the declaration of war, citizens of Annapolis assembled under the venerable poplar as their fathers had done for the purpose of “expressing their devotion to the sacred cause of their country.” A handsome dinner was prepared with state officials and military officers in attendance amidst patriotic toasts and the discharge of saluting cannons.
And here is a photograph of that moment. This is Mayor Claude standing with a group of mothers and children.
In 1999 when the tree was removed, a Maryland resident and landscaper named Mark Menhert salvaged the wood from the Liberty Tree. Because of his efforts, an organization named The Providence Forum was able to acquire most of the wood. This organization is based in Philadelphia and its mission is to “preserve, defend and advance the faith and values consistent with those of our nation’s founding.”
The Providence Forum has a Liberty Tree planting project of its own and has planted trees thus far in 13 states. It should be in all 50.
The PF has done some amazing work to insure that the last remnants of the last Liberty Tree are honored and preserved.
One of their most inspirational projects was to recreate the Liberty Bell and prepare a framework to suspend the bell using the wood from Maryland’s Liberty Annapolis Tree.
So, I hope by now, you are fully inspired. Your Liberty Tree could be a tulip poplar, an elm, a live oak, even a simple pine Tree. In fact, many flags of the American Revolution pictured pine trees, such as this one.
Or this one:
The point is, plant a tree. Or christen an existing tree and call it your family Liberty Tree. Read the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights underneath your tree. Hang 13 lights one for each of the 13 original colonies. Tie a red handkerchief on a branch. Involve your children and create a sign that reads “The Liberty Tree.”
Now for those who can’t plant or designate a tree, create one out of cardboard. The one you seen pictured here is pretty big, but you can design one that will sit on a table. Paint it. Voila. You’ve got a Liberty Tree.
Last year, I organized a summer program called the School of American Leadership (SOAL), and the students and I created a large Liberty tree and decorated it with “ornaments.” These ornaments were portraits of our founding fathers and mothers. We researched quotes for each leader and wrote them on the back. For example, we have a picture of John Adams and his quote, “Always stand on principle….even if you stand alone.”
My students are reciting, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I would venture to brag that these children know more about America’s founding because of our activities with the Liberty Tree than most adults.
In our pursuit of celebrating the 4th of July, begin with a Liberty Tree.
One more thing. Here are the lyrics to the theme song of Johnny Tremain.
THE LIBERTY TREE
Tom Blackburn & George Bruns, 1956)
(From the Disney film “Johnny Tremain”)
Plant the seed in our homeland, boys.
Let it grow where all can see.
Feed it with our devotion, boys.
Call it the Liberty Tree.
It’s a tall old tree and a strong old tree,
And we are the Sons, yes, we are the Sons, the Sons of Liberty.
Save it from the storm, boys.
Water down its roots with tea;
And the sun will always shine
On the old Liberty Tree.
March along with the piper, boys.
We were born forever free.
We will pay the piper, boys,
Beneath the Liberty Tree.
Pay the price they’re asking, boys,
Always pay the tyrant’s fee.
Never give up the struggle, boys,
Fight for the Liberty Tree.
Stand for the rights of man, boys.
Stand against all tyranny.
Hang the of light of freedom, boys,
High on the Liberty Tree.
It will grow as we grow, boys.
It will be as strong as we.
We must cling to our faith, boys,
Faith in the Liberty Tree.
Note: If you would like specific instructions on how to create your own tree and Liberty ornaments, send me $15.00 (includes postage in Texas), and I will mail you instructions and a starter kit. This is a great way to learn who all the founders are. There are over 55 signers to Declaration of Independence and many more Founding Fathers and Mothers. For more information, call 713 357-5812.
The Liberty Tree
School of American Leadership
c/o Adolf Hoepfl Garage
4610 N. Shepherd Dr.
Houston, Texas 77018
Make checks payable to SOAL. Be sure to include your name, mailing address, e-mail and telephone number.
Liberty Tree Boston & Sons of Liberty
Liberty Square at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom
June 14: Adolf Hoepfl Garage salutes National Flag Day with display of historical flags.