John Dickinson’s Hit Single: Liberty Song

By 1768, Pennsylvania political activist John Dickinson became a true triple threat. He was already one of the most successful lawyers and businessmen in all of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and was the author of the “Letter from a Farmer” essays, one of the most widely admired and reprinted political pamphlets of the decade. And that summer he added another accomplishment: Popular songwriter.

Dickinson penned new lyrics to the melody of the famous British Royal Navy tune, “Heart of Oak,” and shared his verses with local Philadelphia newspaper printers. William and Thomas Bradford, printers of the Pennsylvania Journal, and William Goddard, printer of the Pennsylvania Chronicle, were among the first to publish the ballad along with Dickinson’s written request: “Please to insert the following Song in your next [Journal/Chronicle], and you will oblige yours, &c.   D.”

Thanks to an intercolonial newspaper exchange system, Dickinson’s “Liberty Song” spread like wildfire, appearing in newspapers throughout the colonies, including:

  • July 7, 1768, Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia)
  • July 7, 1768, Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia)
  • July 11, 1768, Pennsylvania Chronicle (Philadelphia)
  • July 11, 1768, New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy
  • July 18, 1768, New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury
  • July 18, 1768, Boston Gazette
  • July 21, 1768, Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon)
  • July 22, 1768, Connecticut Journal (New Haven)
  • July 22, 1768, Connecticut Gazette (New London)
  • July 23, 1768, Providence Gazette
  • September 5, 1768, Boston Chronicle

The patriotic tune became an American anthem throughout the Revolution and was used that summer to help unite colonists against a series of new laws, known as the Townshend Acts, that imposed strict revenue-raising taxes on goods imported from England, including paint, glass, lead, paper, and tea. It must have also made Dickinson a total ladies’ man as he married Mary Norris, a property-rich 36-year-old, two Julys later. According to The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732-1800, by Charles Janeway Stille, Mary rejected Dickinson until 1769, but, following the death of Mary’s sister on Jun 24, 1769, he renewed his pursuit and was finally successful. The two married on July 19, 1770.

On August 14, 1769, John Adams wrote in his diary that he “dined with 350 Sons of Liberty” at a Dorchester tavern where Dickinson’s younger brother was a guest of honor and everyone sang “The Liberty Song.” The song also made an appearance in the popular John Adams HBO mini-series (click here to see it sung by Franklin, Adams and the French). For those wanting the lyrics, below is a transcript of the version as it appeared in the Chronicle:

A SONG.

To the Tune of HEART OF OAK, &c.

COME, join Hand in Hand, brave AMERICANS all,

And rouse your bold Hearts at fair LIBERTY’s Call;

No tyrannous Acts shall suppress your just Claim,

Or stain with Dishonour AMERICA’s Name.

In FREEDOM we’re BORN, and in FREEDOM we’ll LIVE,

Our Purses are ready,

Steady, Friends, steady,

Not as SLAVES, but as FREEMEN our Money we’ll give.

Our worthy Forefathers – let’s give them a Cheer –

To Climates unknown did courageously steer;

Thro’ Oceans to Deserts for Freedom they came,

And dying bequeath’d us their Freedom and Fame

In FREEDOM we’re BORN, &c.

Their generous Bosoms all Dangers despis’d,

So highly, so wisely, their BIRTHRIGHTS they priz’d;

We’ll keep what they gave, we will piously keep,

Nor frustrate their Toils on the Land and the Deep.

                In FREEDOM we’re born, &c.

The TREE their own Hands had to LIBERTY rear’d,

They liv’d to behold growing strong and rever’d;

With Transport then cry’d, “now our Wishes we gain,

For our Children shall gather the Fruits of our Pain.”

                In FREEDOM we’re born, &c.

How sweet are the Labors that Freeman endure,

That they shall enjoy all the Profit, secure –

No more such sweet Labors AMERICANS know,

If Britons shall reap what Americans sow

                In FREEDOM we’re born, &c.

Swarms of Placemen and *Pensioners soon will appear,

Like Locusts deforming the Charms of the Year;

Suns vainly will rise, Showers vainly descend,

If we are to drudge for what others shall spend.

                In FREEDOM we’re BORN, &c.

Then join Hand in Hand brave AMERICANS all,

By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall;

IN SO RIGHTEOUS A CAUSE let us hope to succeed,

For Heaven approves of each generous Deed. –

                In FREEDOM we’re BORN, &c.

All Ages shall speak with Amaze and Applause,

Of the Courage we’ll shew IN SUPPORT OF OUR LAWS;

To DIE we can bear – but to SERVE we disdain —-

For SHAME is to Freemen more dreadful than PAIN. –

                In FREEDOM we’re BORN, &c.

This Bumper I crown for our SOVEREIGN’s Health,

And this for BRITANNIA’S Glory and Wealth;

That Wealth and that Glory immortal may be,

If she is but just – and if we are but free. – s

                In FREEDOM we’re BORN, &c.

 *The Ministry have already begun to give away in PENSIONS, the Money they lately took out of our Pockets, WITHOUT OUR CONSENT.

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4 Comments

  • When Dickinson distributed his song he must have also provided instructions that it should be sung to the tune of… I’m reminded of the song we sang in school, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” which (unknowingly to me until years later) was the tune of “God Save the Queen/King.” I’m curious to know whether these lyrics put to existing music were written as such because using existing music was easier than original composition, a homage or for satiric purposes. Another great article from the keeper of the print.

  • Now, I KNOW I never learned THIS in school. That John Dickinson, aside from lawyer and celebrated “Farmer” of this time, was also the Barry “I Write the Songs” Manilow of the era. How fascinating is this? And I’ve often wondered what the song was in the clip you linked of the John Adams HBO series. Very indicative also – Franklin working the crowd with all the French partiers singing JD’s “Liberty Song”, while Adams is relegated to handing out flags to paying customers and shocked when someone gets a flag who has not paid. Too bad Dickinson and descendants didn’t get song-writing residual royalties…oops. There’s that royal word again. Great article, Todd!

  • @SPM Yep, without double-checking every newspaper printing, I’m pretty sure they all included “To the Tune of HEART OF OAK, &c.” like the Pennsylvania Chronicle transcript and image (see link to image provided above).

    @JSmithJr Thanks! I knew about the song, but thought it was funny that Dickinson’s love interest changed her mind shortly after he became a popular songwriter. Coincidence? Or did Dickinson became a colonial heartthrob with “Liberty Song”? I enjoyed watching the John Adams clip and following along with the lyrics.

  • As you point out, the melody clearly called for here is “Hearts of Oak,” and there are several recordings of it available (I perform it live very regularly). I’m not sure I understand why you include a recording of some nondescript (modern?) tune for Dickinson’s words.

    The main teaching point about Dickinson’s lyrics, I think, is the Tory response from Boston in the Boston Gazette, Sept. 26, 1768 with the heading “Last Tuesday the following SONG made its Appearance from a Garret at C-s-t-e W–m.”

    The first verse begins:
    Come Shake your dull Noddles, ye Pumpkins and bawl,
    And own that you’re mad at fair Liberty’s Call
    No Scandalous Conduct can add to your Shame,
    Condemn’d to dishonor. Inherit the same —

    And the chorus, like the following verses, continues to mock Dickinson’s position

    In Folly you’re born and in Folly you’ll live
    To Madness still ready
    And Stupidly steady
    Not as men but as Monkies the Tokens you give.

    — they are excellent material demonstrating the Tory position.

    Shortly after the arrival of British troops to occupy Boston, yet a third version is issued, also in the Boston Gazette, Oct. 3, 1768 – “The following was publish’d in a Hand-Bill last Week.
    The Parody parodized, Or the MASSACHUSETTS Song of LIBERTY.”

    It opens:
    COME swallow your bumpers, ye Tories! And roar,
    That the Sons of fair FREEDOM are bumper’d once more;
    But know that no Cut-throats our Spirits can tame,
    Nor a Host of Oppressors shall smother the flame.

    It’s a great story, well outlined and illustrated in Lawrence, Vera Brodsky. Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents. New York: Macmillan, 1975. , 26-31

    ————————————David Hildebrand, The Colonial Music Institute

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