On September 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought heavy rains and high winds to Annapolis, Maryland. Many trees were damaged, including
a Lirodendron Tulipfera (tulip poplar) known as "the Liberty Tree", on the grounds of St. John's College. This particular tulip poplar had withstood lightning, revolution, explosives and decay for at least four hundred years. Decades of college commencement ceremonies had taken place beneath the tree, and since 1982 the lawn around the tree had been the site of the annual croquet match between the Johnnies of St. John's College and the Middies (Midshipmen) of the neighboring United States Naval Academy, featuring formal dress and mint juleps.
In 1999, however, the Liberty Tree was on its last legs and contained several tons of concrete from a well-intentioned, but ultimately counterproductive attempt to shore up the tree in 1907. On October 25, 1999, after a brief ceremony, the tree was taken down, and a descendent of the tree, planted in 1889, was formally dedicated as the "Son of Liberty Tree".
The Liberty Tree was a fully mature 100 feet tall when, in 1742, Thomas Bladen, the governor of His Majesty's colony of Maryland, directed that a residence be constructed on a hill near the tree. The mansion, subsequently labelled "Bladen's Folly", was never finished, prompting Thomas Jefferson to remark, in a letter dated May 25, 1766, after a visit to Annapolis: "They have no public buildings worth mentioning except a governor's house, the hull of which after being nearly finished, they have suffered to go to ruin."
The idea of Liberty embodied in a living tree came from Boston in 1765, when a club calling itself the "Sons of Liberty" met under an elm to hear speeches against the Stamp Act, a tax on newspapers and official documents. The "Sons of Liberty" commissioned silversmith Paul Revere to design a medal for its members that bore the image and the caption "Liberty Tree." While the Stamp Act was repealed, other taxes were imposed which disproportionately burdened the growth of the colonies. By the mid 1770's, angry citizens were regularly meeting under trees in every port city from Boston to Charleston. Thomas Paine was inspired to write the following:
by Thomas Paine
IN a chariot of light from the regions of day,
The Goddess of Liberty came;
Ten thousand celestials directed the way,
And hither conducted the dame.
A fair budding branch from the gardens above,
Where millions with millions agree,
She brought in her hand as a pledge of her love,
And the plant she named Liberty Tree.
The celestial exotic struck deep in the ground,
Like a native it flourished and bore;
The fame of its fruit drew the nations around,
To seek out this peaceable shore.
Unmindful of names or distinctions they came,
For freemen like brothers agree;
With one spirit endued, they one friendship pursued,
And their temple was Liberty Tree.
Beneath this fair tree, like the patriarchs of old,
Their bread in contentment they ate
Unvexed with the troubles of silver and gold,
The cares of the grand and the great.
With timber and tar they Old England supplied,
And supported her power on the sea;
Her battles they fought, without getting a groat,
For the honor of Liberty Tree.
But hear, O ye swains, 'tis a tale most profane,
How all the tyrannical powers,
Kings, Commons and Lords, are uniting amain,
To cut down this guardian of ours;
From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,
Through the land let the sound of it flee,
Let the far and the near, all unite with a cheer,
In defence of our Liberty Tree.
The Peggy Stewart and the Annapolis Tea Party
In October, 1774, residents of Annapolis met under the large tulip poplar on a hill west of the harbor town. People were outraged by an oppressive tax on the importation of tea. Local merchants had signed an agreement to boycott the importation of tea in protest, but one Anthony Stewart, who had refused to sign, had brought a cargo including 2,000 pounds of tea into the Annapolis harbor. Word of Stewart's intentions got out, and an angry mob went to Stewart's house demanding that he burn the ship "or be hanged right here at your front door". Stewart begged the mob to let him burn just the tea and save the rest of his cargo and the ship, the Peggy Stewart (named after his daughter). The mob, mistakenly believing that Stewart had forsworn the non-importation agreement and was again trying to deceive his fellow citizens, would have none of it. Stewart, fearing for his life and the lives of his family, arranged to have the ship run aground and, applying the torch himself, burned it to the water line.
When the British colonial expeditionary forces occupied Boston and Charleston they cut their Liberty trees down. The Boston Liberty Elm became 14 cords of wood to fuel the British campfires, while the stump of the Charleston Liberty Oak was burned to remove any trace of its existence. Annapolis, however, was never occupied and its Liberty Tuliptree would become the town's oldest living survivor of the Revolutionary era.
St. John's College
Following the American Revolution, the new State of Maryland chartered a college, consolidating the existing "King William's School" (which had been founded in Annapolis in1696) with a plan to build two state-supported colleges, one on each side of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1784, the legislature gave the new college in Annapolis the ruin of "Bladen's Folly" and the land where the Liberty Tree stood. The mansion was completed and re-named "McDowell Hall" after the colleges' first President, and served as the college's only principal building until additional buildings were erected in the shadow of the Liberty Tree in the mid-nineteenth century.
In December 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited Annapolis and gave a speech under the Liberty Tree. In the 1840's, school boys exploded two pounds of gunpowder in a hollow in the tree. The tree appeared to be destroyed, but rebounded the following spring more vigorously than ever, prompting speculation that the boys' prank had killed off parasites which had infested the tree.
In 1907, tree surgeons, using techniques common at the time but now known to be counterproductive, gutted the tree, attempted to kill off a rotting fungus with antiseptics, then filled the trunk with over 55 tons of steel-reinforced concrete. Unfortunately, these methods did not halt internal rot, and the wood continued to rot around its concrete plug. By 1999, the wood supporting the tree was only two to three inches thick around, and the concrete fill was in fact providing no support whatsoever. The tree had to come down. The tree is survived by many cuttings, and may perhaps also be genetically reduplicated by a cloning project.