“Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero (Orator Ad M. Brutum, Rome, 46 B.C.)
The battle scene depicted above “Colonist defending the Liberty Pole, New York”, was not of a specific battle, but of one that represented a ten year conflict in which it was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. Liberty may sometimes be a prize that is won in one battle, but it is only maintained through continual conflict.
The history of the struggle began with the Liberty Tree in Boston, where Samuel Adams’ “Sons of Liberty” would often congregate. For over fourteen years, the “Liberty Elm” tree was transformed from a common meeting place to a National Icon and beacon for liberty. The New York Chapter of the Sons of Liberty erected a “liberty pole” fashioned from wood adorned with a cap upon the top, to mark their meeting location. The history of the liberty pole is significant, as it dates back to 44 BC when a group of Roman Senators assassinated Roman dictator Julius Caesar. Immediately after Ceaser was killed, a Phrygian cap, symbolizing the freedom of the slaves, was placed upon the pole to symbolize their freedom from tyranny. The pole was significant, as it was an instrument of war –a phalanx, a guidon, a spear. Since then, the liberty pole with a hat atop has been a symbol for freedom and representation of the people in government and can be seen in art and literature throughout Europe. It is a symbol of a war instrument adored with the freedom it provided. Most notably, it can be seen in the center of the Emblem of the Department of the Army where the Phrygian cap (often called the Cap of Liberty) is supported on the point of an unsheathed sword and the motto emblazoned on the scroll flying above it with the words “This We’ll Defend.”
During the Siege of Boston, a party loyal to the King of England cut down the Liberty tree, knowing what it represented to the Colonist, and then used the remnants for firewood. The fire that followed though was flames of revolution throughout the colonies. Liberty poles were erected in most towns and villages as far south as Georgia. Some were defiantly cut from white pine, which was prohibited for public use and reserved exclusively for masts of His Majesty’s navy. The caps traditionally atop the pole were replaced with various flags fashioned from either local militias or slogans of rebels’ cries, such as Ben Franklin’s depiction of a snake entitled “Join or Die” and the Navy’s “Don’t trend on me”. This became the birth of the flag pole in town squares.
Hearing the reverberations of revolution, the English moved to disarm the Colonists of their weaponry. While not everyone could fight and not all participated, most all were motivated to defend against tyranny. Each had their different motivations: some wanted independence, and others just wanted the British off their lands and out of their homes. The battle belonged to not just the citizen soldiers of the militias that sprang up; but as Patrick Henry stated to the Virginia Convention, “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” The people gathered together, but there was not yet a unifying flag. They gathered under many banners – the unifying factor was that they were flown from the masts of the liberty poles. The term “flag pole” cannot even be found in early American literature until the 19th Century; flags were flown from liberty poles. It was the one common thread that every early American fought for – liberty.
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