The Liberty Song

Words by John Dickinson, 1768; tune "Heart of Oak" by William Boyce, 1759

Can you tell approximately when this song was written? What are some clues that it was written before the Declaration of Independence? Does it sound like the author wasn't ready yet to declare independence? Why?

What are the issues the author has with Great Britain? What phrases express those issues best? What does "if we are to drudge for what others will spend" (verse 5) mean?

What is the song asking for? What is the "righteous cause" they hope to succeed in (verse 6)? How does the author think America can get what it is asking for? "By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall." When and why did the colonies start thinking of themselves as united instead of as individual states? Why was this idea important to the Revolution?

This song—and most others of the time—was written to the tune of a popular British song. Why do you think this happened so often?

"The Liberty Song" performed by Arthur F. Schrader on American Revolutionary War Songs to Cultivate the Sensations of Freedom, Folkways [05279], © 1976. Available on Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube.

The performance is also similar to a chanty as everyone joins in on the chorus. The combined singing of the chorus unites those assembled in support of the message.

View the lyrics and music for "The Liberty Song."

View the published score.

View the lyrics for "A Parody of a Well-Known Liberty Song."

John Dickinson, by Charles Willson Peale from life, 1782 - 1783.
John Dickinson, by Charles Willson Peale from life, ca.1782-83.

To protest the Townshend Act, conservative Philadelphia lawyer John Dickinson wrote Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, arguing that Britain had no right to tax America. The Letters were widely distributed, quoted and debated. Then he set the message to music.

After Dickinson set his message to music it was published in Philadelphia as a broadside. "The Liberty Song" was probably the first secular sheet music in America. Reprinted throughout the colonies, it was sung everywhere as a resistance song. The message, "by uniting we stand, by dividing we fall," was crucial for the disparate colonies early in the conflict. It became America's first "national" anthem even before there was a nation.

Later working on the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson's commitment to compromise set an example for citizenship in a republic. Though he had opposed independence and refused to sign the Declaration, eight days later he presented Congress a plan for the new government. After arguing his case, if the majority adopted another plan, he supported it for the good of all.

Like most American songs of this era, this song borrowed its tune from a popular British song, in this case "Heart of Oak," a sea chanty. Parodies of songs, including responses from loyalists, were ubiquitous and formed the basis of much public debate.

Belzee (Beelzebub): The Devil.

The American Revolution was fought with articles, pamphlets and songs as well as with guns - song lyrics were often rewritten to answer an opposing view. Write Loyalist lyrics in answer to this song. After students write and share their songs, show them the Loyalist parody that appeared in the Boston Gazette and Boston Evening Post just before British troops arrived in Boston (p. 2.19).

Choose a phrase from "The Liberty Song" to make into a recruiting poster for the Continental Army.


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