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Song for the Sons of Liberty (1766)


A decade before the Revolution, confusion reigned. Were we Americans or were we British subjects? The Stamp Act helped New Englanders make up their minds -- but it didn't happen quickly.


Among the great thrills of membership in the Portsmouth Athenaeum is the ability to study early copies of the New Hampshire Gazette up close. That is just what I was doing last week when I stumbled over the following song lyrics dedicated to the Sons of Liberty, first published in this newspaper on April 18, 1766. The poem appeared the same week that Portsmouth citizens learned of the repeal of the much-hated Stamp Act

This is a rare look inside the mind of a nation half-British and half- American. Historians remind us that the Revolution evolved slowly. Portsmouth merchants were reluctant to anger the protecting parent nation that was also our biggest trade customer. So here, almost a decade before the rebellion, this song both professes loyalty to King George and threatens to take bloody action. America here stands up as the defender of all oppressed Britons, both at home and in British colonies worldwide. Readers can even see an early version of the New Hampshire "Live Free or Die" slogan forming here.

I sent a copy of the lyrics to maritime singer Jeff Warner of Portsmouth. (You can hear him on his web site Jeff and his parents are well known for their scholarly study of American folk songs. He says this tune is derived from a British standard -- "Hearts of Oak Are We Still." It is typical, Jeff says, to see English songs copied and adapted to suit an increasingly rebellious American citizenry.

Jeff notes that such "parodies" were designed more to adapt a good song to a new meaning, rather than to make fun of the original as we use the word today. Pulling out a book entitled "Songs of Independence" by Irwin Silber, Jeff was able to pinpoint the origin of the tune released in London in 1759. The song was intended as a salute to men of the British Navy. But here in the colonies and adapted by Americans, Silber notes, " the seeds of subversion were to be found between the lines."

Silber reports that the earliest known version of the song appeared on April 14, 1766 in the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser. That makes sense. The copy I found in the NH Gazette appeared just four days later. According to the Gazette, news of the repeal of the Stamp Act arrived earlier that week when Captain George Turner arrived in Portsmouth from a journey aboard the brigantine "Irish Gimlet".

The Captain’s men might have arrived singing "Hearts of Oak," but there is an even more likely source. At noon on the day the brigantime arrived, the Gazette reports, messengers from Boston arrived bearing similar facts as published in an April 14 newspaper. The Boston source had apparently gotten its news from the Sons of Liberty in Newport, Rhode Island two days earlier. They, in turn, had learned it from trustworthy sources in Baltimore four days before that. With each news report of the Stamp Act, it is same to assume, came the new lyrics to the song – half angry at the King, half obedient. -- J. Dennis Robinson

Note: The simple red striped flag above was the original banner of the Sons of Liberty in the 1760s, and some believe, offered the idea for the background of the modern flag. The Pine Tree flag was a later adaptation, possibly used at Bunker Hill, a battle heavily attended by New Hampshire men.

READ: Sons of Liberty are now Improved Order of Red Men



Song for Sons of Liberty in the Several American Provinces
Traditional Song
From the NH Gazette, April 1766

Sure never was picture more drawn to the life,
Or affectionate husband more fond of his wife,
Than America copies and loves Britain's sons,
Who, conscious of Freedom, are as bold as great guns.

Hearts of oak are we still, for we're sons of those men,
Who always are ready, steady, boys, steady,
To fight for their freedom again and again.

Tho' we feast, and grow fat, on America's soil.
Yet we own ourselves subjects of Britain's fair isle.
And who's so absurd to deny us the name?
Since true British blood flows in every vein.

Hearts, etc.

Then cheer up my lads, to your country be firm,
Like Kings of the ocean we'll weather each storm;
Integrity calls out; fair LIBERTY see,
Waves her flag o'er our heads, and her words are

Hearts, etc. [Be free]

To King George, as true subjects, we loyal bow down,
But, hope we may call Magna Charta our own:
Let the rest of the world slavish worship decree,
Great-Britain has order'd her sons should be free.

Hearts, etc.

Poor Esau, his birth-right gave up for a bribe;
Americans scorn the mean soul-selling tribe;
Beyond life, our FREEDOM we chuse to possess,
Which thro' life we'll defend, and abjure a broad S

Hearts of oak are we still, for we're sons of those men,
Who fear not the ocean, brave roarings of cannon,
To stop all oppression, again and again.

On our brows while we laurel crown'd Liberty wear,
What Englishman ought, we AMERICANS dare;
Tho' tempests, and terrors around us we see,
Bribes nor fears can prevail on the hearts that are free

Hearts, etc.

With Loyalty, LIBERTY, let us entwine;
Our blood shall for both, flow as free as our wine.
Let us set an example, what all men should be,
And a toast to the world, Here's to those dare be free.

Hearts, etc.

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