Liberty Poles and Popular Protest in the Founding Era

As the Trump presidency begins, many Americans are considering how to oppose the harmful federal legislation that will likely follow his taking office. Some are bent on revamping the Democratic Party in the hopes of creating a robust opposition at the state and local levels, and retaking Congress in two years’ time. But others fear that this will be too little, too late. With the entire federal government now controlled by Republicans, many are eschewing institutional politics, and instead emphasizing popular protest as a more immediate way to combat the implementation of Trump’s campaign promises. “Trump’s reactionary agenda won’t be defeated in Congress,” Bernie Sanders warned in a recent tweet. “It will be defeated when millions of Americans come together to oppose xenophobia.”

While electoral and street politics are far from mutually exclusive, Americans have debated which should take precedence since the founding era. In the republic’s first few decades, this conversation took place through conflicts over liberty poles – a wooden mast with a flag or sign that denounced the government as tyrannical and signaled resistance to unjust laws.

Revolutionary Origins

During the American Revolution, Patriots raised liberty poles as symbols of their resistance to British rule. The poles became rallying points around which Patriots would meet to reconfirm their commitment to the cause. They hung signs on their poles with mottos like “Liberty in Opposition to Arbitrary Taxation” and burned British leaders in effigy at the bases.1 Deeming the liberty poles offensive and treasonous, British troops often tore them down. But these actions merely strengthened the association Patriots made between their poles and opposition to British despotism. British attacks galvanized Patriots to re-erect their liberty poles and vigorously defend them as emblems of their commitment to resistance.

Liberty Poles in the New Nation

In the 1790s, liberty poles became a focal point for debates about how citizens should express resistance to the federal government. The emergent opposition party, the Republicans (no relation to the current political party), raised liberty poles to protest policies enacted by the administrations of George Washington and John Adams. For example, in 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Law, making it illegal to print or state in public anything critical of the federal government. Outraged at this violation of the First Amendment, Republicans raised liberty poles with signs proclaiming “No Sedition Bill,” “Liberty and Equality,” “Downfall to the Tyrants of America,” and “Liberty of the Press, Speech, and Sentiment.”2 According to the new law, such displays were illegal. But Republicans believed that the Revolution’s legacy guaranteed them the right to immediately oppose policies that encroached on their liberty. By using a Revolutionary symbol, they cast themselves as heirs to the Patriots and those in power as monarchists who imposed unjust legislation reminiscent of British tyranny.

First printing of the U.S. Constitution. (Library of Congress)

It is worth remembering that, at this time, the American experiment in republicanism was still new and vulnerable. Surrounded by a world of monarchies, many Americans feared that their attempt at government by the people would not last. As such, Republicans believed it the duty of all citizens to be vigilant in their defense of the Constitution. To them, the next election was far from guaranteed, and so they could not afford to rely on institutional politics to protect their interests.

But the vulnerability of the republic was precisely why others condemned the Republicans and their protest politics. Supporters of the government, the Federalists, denounced the liberty poles as an illegitimate and dangerous form of political expression. Now that Americans elected their own representatives to frame and administer the laws, they argued, Revolutionary resistance tactics had no place – Americans did not need to oppose laws of their own making. Federalists criticized the pole-raisers as traitors to the Revolution who aimed to undermine the will of the people and so destroy representative government. In 1799, the Berkshire Gazette of Massachusetts warned its readers of the present danger: “liberty poles have been erected in the United States by those who are unfriendly to the Federal Government, and are intended as beacons to invite faction, turbulence, insurrection and rebellion in our country.”3 To combat the pernicious influence of the Republicans, Federalists tore down liberty poles and often harassed pole-raisers, leading to violence, legal battles, and acerbic press coverage.

Fights over liberty poles constituted a battle over when and how opposition could be expressed in a republic. Republicans advocated for a vigilant form of citizenship that enabled Americans to immediately resist the implementation of harmful legislation. In contrast, Federalists feared that liberty poles undermined the people’s expressed will and so destabilized the republic. “In a republican government, a majority must rule,” declared a Federalist newspaper, “and he is no republican who will not submit to the determination of a majority.”4 Federalists argued that elections provided the only appropriate avenue for citizens to seek political change.

Ironically, it was Federalist attacks on popular protest that helped secure the Republicans a key electoral victory. In the election of 1800, Federalists faced a backlash against their legislation and assaults on free speech that placed Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Republican party, in the White House. Shortly after taking office, Jefferson repealed the Sedition Law. While years of protest had laid the groundwork, electoral politics provided the means to long-lasting change.

Nineteenth-Century Transformations

But the liberty pole and popular politics underwent a significant transformation in the nineteenth century. The two new parties, the Whigs and Democrats, both raised liberty poles, not in opposition to legislation, but in support of their candidates. For instance, in the 1820s, Whigs used Ash Poles for Henry Clay in reference to his Kentucky estate named “Ashland,” and Democrats raised Hickory Poles for Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson.5 The poles became campaign symbols, akin to the modern-day practice of putting a candidate’s sign on your lawn.

Engraving of Henry Clay (Sartain/Library of Congress)

A key shift had occurred in American political culture: having seen a series of elections and peaceful transfers of power, citizens felt confident in the electoral process. With the rotation of power now a given, pole-raisers sought political change through elections, and those in office accepted the notion of a loyal opposition. As one contemporary noted, during the 1790s, liberty poles “were then regarded as ominous indications of popular movement pointing toward insurrection, treason, or rebellion, while they pointed toward the heavens! At the present day, they are among the harmless means of giving vent to party differences.”6

The solidification of the two-party system stabilized American politics, as dissatisfaction with government could now be channeled into party competition. A disgruntled citizen no longer required the resistance politics of the Republicans if he wanted political change; he merely needed to get his candidate elected. In this context, expressing opposition required showing support for one’s candidate and antipathy for the other side. It no longer meant outright resistance to legislation or government.

The Trump Era

With Trump now in office, debates about opposition have once again taken on an urgent tone. While Trump’s opponents no doubt view electoral politics, especially the midterms, as crucial in curbing his power, we have already seen a return to the oppositional, issue-based politics of the Republican pole-raisers. In North Dakota, protesters scored a recent victory in the rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline away from the tribal lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. An incredible 3.3 million people turned out for the Women’s March across the United States the day after Trump’s inauguration. And callers have filled the voicemails of Congressional leadership with messages denouncing Trump’s cabinet appointments.

As concerns about the potential for harmful federal legislation in the coming years mounts, many fear that we cannot afford to simply wait for another election cycle. Rather, dangerous legislation needs to be immediately resisted while citizens demand amendments and repeals.

The time may have come for the liberty pole to make its reappearance.

Notes

  1. Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Liberty Tree: A Genealogy,” The New England Quarterly, 25 (December 1952), 445-452; David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43-47. Return to text.
  2. Aurora Daily Advertiser, July 18, 1798, April 9, 1799; The Bee, January 1, 1799. Return to text.
  3. Berkshire Gazette, February 13, 1799. Return to text.
  4. The Spectator, November 28, 1798. Return to text.
  5. Schlesinger, “Liberty Tree,” 456. Return to text.
  6. H.M. Brackenridge, History of the Western Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, commonly called the Whiskey Insurrection, 1794 (Pittsburgh: W.S. Haven, 1859), 128. Return to text.

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