the Stamp Act of 1765, the people of Charleston took to the streets. They burned effigies. They raided homes. They had a printer downtown, T. Powell on
Broad St., and a patriot uptown, Christopher Gadsden with his Sons of Liberty on Alexander St. on their side, and together they loudly proclaimed the injustice
of Britain’s taxes. An anonymous poet, after having published “Liberty” in
Philadelphia two years prior, wrote out a special dedication to Charleston’s
the Sons of Liberty in South Carolina before having his poem republished there in
1770. It was likely fuel for the revolutionary fire.
a poem by Rusticus, addresses American colonists in response to the Stamp Act’s
enactment and subsequent repeal in 1766. Its mythological characters and iambic
pentameter give it a sense of heightened prestige and almost epic importance. Featuring
contemporary political figures, such as Governors Horatio Sharpe of Maryland and Francis Bernard of Massachusettes, and one of the earliest American
explorers, Christopher Columbus, the poem spreads across time and speaks to
these two cities in the wake of war with the British. Mixing revolutionary
politics and a classical style, the edition published in Charleston leans on
the latter in comparison to the original.
Where the Philadelphia edition is dedicated to (and replaces Gadsden with) the Farmer, the poems are almost identical as propaganda for the Glorious
Ninety-Two. This is a reference to
the number of members in the General Court of Massachusetts who, against the at least, most of them request, voted not to rescind a circulated petition expressing
grievances against the king (Magazine 219). But before getting to the
revolutionary politics, the poem takes its time establishing itself on high
poem opens with Truth, the first of a multitude of personified abstract ideas,
wet with tears. She is anguished
with doubt, visions of the American colonists, her sons, shackled by Slavery who “almost uttered, ‘Liberty is dead!’” (1). Right from the start, the political
climate looks bleak. Out of this nearly hopeless foreground, Minerva, the Roman
goddess of wisdom, speaks to the colonists, who are addressed in all capital
letters. Although the opening page also has Truth, Slav’ry (sic), and Liberty
in all caps, the typographical emphasis on “colonists” is maintained throughout
the poem, highlighting the importance of the audience’s role in the poem’s
political message. Minerva begins by stressing the colonists’ virtuous claim to
freedom, which was paid for with the bloodshed of their parents, the original
European explorers. Ignoring Reason and disobeying truth, she warns, results in
the apocalyptic consequences where “every field shows Mountains of the Dead”
identifies with the colonists on multiple levels, minimizing dissent by
disassociation. She says her interests, like the colonists’, include “Brittania,”even though she hails from
Grecian “Olympia” and “marks the
mandate of omniscient Jove,” creating
an identity that is simultaneously European, mythological, Christian, and American patriot. She further asks Pallas, her “daughter,” to relay a message
to the colonists. She talks about liberty’s importance and irretrievability. Oppressive
power, she warns repeatedly, increases slowly and when left unchecked, enslaves
those who are compliant. As much as she asserts the precedence of freedom, she
takes as much time scorning the courtiers, ministers, or statesmen for their
pride and greed, at one point even comparing them to beggars. As the name
Rusticus incites the virtuosity of agrarian values, the distrust of
cosmopolitan politicians is no surprise, apparently even in the economically
reaching the halfway point, Minerva finally addresses taxes, which should
infuriate the colonists as any taxes, “will always, more or less” suppress or
injure the public’s freedom. Before calling on the wisdom of the most credible
witness, God Himself, she concedes that some who work in government are
honorable. However, she sarcastically notes what a miracle it will be if those
people do not eventually turn greedy.
incites God’s detestation of slavery without making explicit any distinction
between the colonists who are bound to the metaphorical yokes of British rule
or the physical ones of 18th century slave industry. Nonetheless, disregarding the
difference and erring on the side of the former, Minerva asserst that God would
be happy to see the colonists destroy such evils. Inspired by the skyline and God’s wisdom, Minerva relates a parable of America without directly calling it by name. It’s the story of a
nation, born and complacently basking in freedom. The people’s eyes are opened
when their freedom is taken away, making them ashamed. Although they were
pitied by the throne, a reference to the Stamp Act repeal, the people were
perpetually slighted and eventually awoke in bondage. Take heed of those who
believe too much and think too late. And remember: better late than never.
Minerva takes her exit through the clouds. Left alone momentarily, the grateful common folk unite and head toward the church. There they pray to God for protection, when Christopher
Columbus suddenly rises from the dead and speaks prophetically to the people.
Having been awoken by Liberty’s tears, Columbus relates the story of his
awakening after “some fifty years” (14) of sleep. Although originally published
in Philadelphia, Charleston certainly would have appreciated this dating. The
poem’s publication marked the 51st anniversary of Charlestown’s
petition to be a royal colony under the king, undermining the Lord’s
Proprietors political influence. Surely Columbus would have been sleeping happy
after the city diminished the role of those who ruled over the colony like
middlemen (Rosen 17).
of political inequality awoke not only the 317-year-old explorer. The
reputation of Lord Grenville of England, whose proposed legislation such as the
Stamp Act “led to the first symptoms of alienation between American and the
mother Country” (Boatner 457), also have stirred the graves of the colonists’
deceased parents. In all capital letters and bolded, “STAMPS” signify a future state of slavery to Mother England
in light of the past conflict. Following is an American synecdoche for British
oppression, the “vocal BERNARD, ever insincere, /
Perform’d the Function of a G—nv—lee here” (16). Rusticus gives a glancing
reader the highlights to this poem’s political implications, siding against
Bernard who lost public support in the 1760s. Letters between Bernard and
English officials were published in Boston, causing a controversy that led to
revocation of Bernard’s title as Governor in 1769 (Raimo 147).
the Charleston edition was only published two years after the original, the
political climate had seemingly changed to allow for literally bolder
accusations against the British. Both the “Br-t—h Pa-l-m--ts” and “B-RN-D”
become uncensored in the 1770 version, with the latter clearly emphasized.
While the Philadelphia edition typographically emphasizes virtues such as
“REASON, LIBERTY, and LOVE” (16), the Charleston edition exclusively reserves
this formatting for the colonists themselves. Rusticus is able to make his
selection of political adversaries stronger while focusing the audience’s
attention to their own role in the political conflict. That being said, the
author still recognizes the difference between risking libel with the British
and one of his own. He is still careful to censor Lord Grenville’s name, and considering
how “Grenville advocated enforcement of the Stamp Act by military force,” (Boatner
1051) perhaps Rusticus felt safer condemning a fellow American, just in case they
lost the war.
light of Bernard’s duplicity, Columbus emphasizes the importance of unity and
resolve in resistance, and inspires the people once again with notions of “Law,
Truth, Justice, Liberty, and Right” (18). Here, Rusticus humbly recognizes himself,
“the able Penman” (ibid) who brings these issues to light. Unfortunately, our
ghostly patriot doesn’t have the time to “tell but half of the virtues of”
Christopher Gadsden. The man knew the truth, forsaw “the troubles of a falling state”
and burst forward with truth dripping from his pen in a spectacle of light (19).
The Charleston edition sees “farmer” replaced with “Gadsden” as Rusticus turns
his argument from a veneration of the abstract American to living and fighting
politician. Another simple word-for-word exchange between the 1768 and 1770
edition gives Columbus more authority to speak on the controversial politics,
turning him from a ghostly “shade” to an honorable “sage” (19, 14).
wraps up his speech, as he is summoned back by the Gods and must return to the
grave. Before leaving he repeatedly urges the colonists to “support the
glorious Number Nintey-Two” (20). The temple shakes, and Columbus disappears,
swift as lightning. Everyone is left gazing, thinking about Liberty, “the
sacred words retained,” and resolve “to lose their lives before their
This idea of “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” as Patrick Henry coined it, is
apparent in much of American culture. It’s apparent now on the New Hampshire license plate tagline that reads “Live Free or Die” or the 2007 action film
“Live Free or Die Hard.” It was a part of the post-revolutionary theater culture. 1794’s Slaves In Algiers features Frederic, an
American enslaved abroad, finding solace in the fact that, “to die in a
struggle for freedom, is better far than to live in ignominious bondage,”
the iambic pentameter and fluid mythological identities (after all, Pallas is
just the Greek version of Minerva, not her daughter) may feel contrived to the
modern reader, the pre-revolutionary literates from Charleston likely would
have appreciated the effort. Along with having established “probably” the oldest
public library in America in 1698 (Rosen 14), Charleston had a proportionally
staggering amount of newspapers compared to Boston and Philadelphia 1.
This Charleston edition of “Liberty” was published by P. Timothy’s office,
which also published The South Carolina
Gazette and was, in fact, established in part by Benjamin Franklin (Edgar
164). While local papers varied on political stances, “the editors of the South Carolina Gazette... supported to
colonists’ opposition to the Stamp Act” (ibid 209).
a printer may have noticed the extensive use of the word “liberty,” which along
with “rights, freedom,” and sometimes “slavery” appear virtually on every page.
In the months preceding the act’s repeal, the word “Liberty” practically became
synonymous with anti-Stamp Act sentiment. As St. Michael’s Church tolled its
bells, “a coffin labeled ‘American Liberty’ was carried through the city and
buried with great ceremony.” When stamp officers arrived in Charleston on
October 28, 1765, announcing to an exulting crowd that they would not sell the
stamps, they came sailing in on a boat bearing the Union Jack with “Liberty”
written on it (ibid 210). The resolve of the Sons of Liberty, and the hatred
against British taxes in the economically vibrant town struck fear into the
hearts of tax collectors, the greedy villains of this anonymously penned poem.
had an authoritative position over The Sons of Liberty in Charleston, a group that
not only loudly protested the acts but also attacked its enforcers. Before
collecting officers wised up and safely quit their posts, mobs “led by
Gadsden....hunted for stamps in order to destroy them” (Lander & Huff 36). Although
Rusticus concedes that was not in Charleston at the time, he was very pleased to
see his expectations of such a patriotic town met. He had likely heard how “for nine days a mob of more than two
thousand did what it wanted; royal officers were impotent....took refuge behind
the walls of Fort Johnson.” Although they weren’t tarring and feathering
British officials as they did in Boston, “mobs ruled the streets and search the
home of any one....whom they suspected of supporting the Stamp Act” (Edgar
210). Rusticus’s depictions of chaos, “crimson streams” of blood in the streets
(3), and death may have, in fact, sounded very familiar to the majority in
Charleston, but it wasn’t the British nor Gadsden’s gang.
had maintained a black majority since 1708, and “according to Governor William
Bull in 1770 there were only 24 free blacks” (Rosen 44). While defiance against
oppressive authority is rooted in America’s foundation, so is chattel
slavery. The greatest irony is
that Charleston won the first battle against the British, and still became the
picture of enslavement that Rusticus depicts. As the poem was originally dedicated to the simple
Northeastern farmer, neither its author nor intended audience were likely
acquainted with South Carolina plantations that had upwards of two-hundred
slaves. On the other hand, Charleston did have a majority that realistically
knew “the yokes Liberty’s sons would shortly wear”, as Rusticus puts it.
poet was also correct in his assertion that the colonists should act now, for
it will only get worse. In response to such potential slave uprisings as the Denmark
Vesey plot of 1822, slave laws grew more and more restrictive leading up to the
Civil War (Edgar). Slaves lost more and more rights, especially compared to
those of the poem’s audience. Their parents’ generation, which as Rusticus says
died for their rights to freedom, colonized South Carolina in an environment
where, with everyone being a “pioneer, slaves had relatively more freedom
than they would later” (Edgar 68).
can only appreciate this sad irony from our modern reading, as Rusticus’ doesn’t
highlighted actual slavery over metaphorical slavery the way other authors have.
After visiting Charlestown in his book Letters
From an American Farmer, Crévecoeur judges the wealth and power of
Charleston’s “principle classes.... lawyers, planters, and merchants,” the final
of which Gadsden was (167). He describes the people of Charleston as not
ignorant, but willing to ignore the destitute inequalities that their city’s
wealth depended on. “Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are
hardened....and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of
tears which from the bodies of Africans daily drop and moisten the ground they
till” (168). With these blinders on, the readers of Charleston would have
welcomed the indignations against slavery and injustice that Rusticus
describes. With that they would have turned their anger towards the future,
towards the British, and for their liberty, resolved to fight to the death.
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