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Following 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.

            “Liberty,” 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 moral ground.

            The 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” (3).

            Minerva 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 vibrant Charleston.

            Before 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.

            Minerva 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.

            Angelically, 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).

            Rumors 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 Gnvlee 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).

            While 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.

            In 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).

             Columbus 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 Liberty” (21).

            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,” (Rowson 26).

            Although 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).

            Such 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.

            Gadsden 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.

            Charleston 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. 

            The 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).

            We 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Boatner, Mark Mayo. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Bicentennial Edition New York, NY: David McKay Co. 1976. Print.

de Crévecoeur, J. Hector St. John. Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth Century America. 1782. Penguin Classics. OAKS ENGL 342-01 Site.  N.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Edgar, Walter B. South Carolina: A History. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1998. Print. 

Lander, Ernest McPherson and Archie Vernon Huff. South Carolina: An Illustrated History of The Palmetto State. Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press. 2007. Print.

“Liberty. A Poem. By Rusticus.” John Dunlap. Market Street, Philadelphia, 1768. Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Web. 24 April 2013.

“Liberty. A Poem. By Rusticus.” T. Powell. Charleston: Mr. Timothy’s Printing Office in Broad Street, 1770. Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

“The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries.” Google Books. 8.1 (1882): 219. Web. 4 April 2013.

Raimo, John W. Biographical Directory of American Colonial and Revolutionary Governors 1607-1789. Westport, CT: Meckler Books. 1980. Print.

Rosen, Robert N. A Short History of Charleston. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Print.

Rowson, Susanna Haswell. Slaves in Algiers, or A Struggle for Freedom. 1794. Ed. Jennifer Margulis and Karen M. Poremski. Acton, MA: Copley, 2000. Print.

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