Leading up to the American Revolutionary War, opinions varied widely as to whether the American Colonies should remain a part of the British Empire or become an independent nation. Songs and poems were popular means for people to express those feelings and pass along memories of events as well as to incite patriotic pledges. Poems were recited in many social gatherings and songs were sung of sacrifice and honor. The passionate words amplified the causes of war, justified the sacrifices and made leaving home easier for those who served in the army and eased the consciousness of mothers and wives who were left behind.
The Revolutionary war was a monumental event that touched every person’s life in the colonies. Neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. Some colonists wanted to remain neutral, however circumstances soon dictated choosing sides between the crown and those who would break away and from a new republic. For some, those choices varied and were flexible according to the necessary sentiment and circumstances of the day. Changing allegiances and infirm commitments among some citizens and the desperate need for Patriotic support lends the question: Were sentimental songs and poetry of the day written and used as propaganda by Patriot sympathizers to elicit support for American colonist efforts leading up to and during the war for American Independence? This essay argues that from the Sunday Pulpit, from newspaper editors desks, from men standing at political podiums and women at social gatherings and across neighbor’s fences, prose and song delivered the sentiments that convinced American Colonists that there was no alternative than to separate from the mother country, and no alternative than outright war to achieve those means.
From the time that British citizens began to populate North America, a distinctively new culture formed among the populace. Whether these people thought of themselves as displaced “Brits” or something decidedly different was not the major factor, rather it was a spirit of independence and ambition, a sense of self-reliance that gave these frontiersmen and women strength to deal with the hardships that white Europeans faced in attempting to establish a familiar society across the Atlantic. Historian and Author Gordon S. Wood writes his description of how Colonist saw themselves, “Instead of being in the backwaters of history, Americans suddenly saw themselves in a new society ideally equipped for a republican future.” Wood adds a telling quote from John Adams that makes a summary of the American mind-set for many when he writes, “the Revolution was effected before the war commenced. It was a change in the hearts and minds of the people.”
At the close of the French and Indian War in 1763, most Colonists’ sentiments were solidly pro-British. The Crown had just spent considerable resources and amassed huge debt in assisting the Colonist, as many colonists saw their roles, defeat France and end the threat of French encroachment on Colonist and British interest on the western frontier. To secure and protect their colonies, England felt the need to station a peacetime army that added considerable expense to the already overburdened English taxpayer. With the coronation of King Gorge III, “A half century of what Edmund Burke called ‘statutory neglect’ had come to an end, and the ramifications for Americans would initially be resistance, but would escalate to outright defiance and eventually the taking up of arms against Brittan.
British government had annoyed the colonists with legislations, but with passage of the Stamp Act in March 1765, Parliament crossed a line that united the colonies into a political force
has lasted more than two centuries. Music and poetry were instrumental in forming that alliance. Logically then, an examination of how taxation of American colonists was depicted by themselves should present evidence of the outrage that they felt over the Crown’s interference into their pocketbooks.
Peter St. John, A Patriot schoolteacher from Norwalk Connecticut penned new words to The British Grenadiers, a tune that would have been familiar to many colonists. Authors of pro-Whig poems found the use of widely known music and simply changing the words a successful formula to spread Anti-Loyalist sentiments to broad numbers of citizens. It should be noted that when speaking the poem, “America” should be pronounced “Ameri-kay” to enhance the rhythms of the prose.
“While I relate my story, Americans give ear; Of Brittan’s fading glory, you presently shall hear. I’ll give you true relation, attend to what I say, concerning the taxation of North America.”
In the poem’s nine verses, St. John renforces the beliefs of may colonists when he writes: “Cruel lords of Brittan” are “Striving to take our rights away.” St. John then asserts that the King is behind the taxation of the colonies and:
“Invested with a warrant, my publicans will go….If they indulge rebellion, or from my precepts stray, I’ll send my war battalions to North America. I’ll burn both town and city, with smoke becloud the day, I’ll show no pity for North America.”
St. John wrote an American response in the conclusion of the poem, and whose design was to rally support for the Stamp Act opposition.
“O George! You are distracted, you’ll by experience find, the laws you have enacted are
of the blackest kind. I’ll make a short digression and tell you the way, we fear not your
Taxation, oppression, and the threat of British military invasion and attacks on Colonists, especially invoking burning of homes, sent shockwaves through the colonies. If poetry and music were to inflame Patriotic sentiment, mentioning attacks on homes was essential to riling women to the cause. In 1768, in response to the call for colonists to boycott British goods, an appeal to women to support the boycott appeared in a local newspaper, this article appeared in a Boston newspaper, penned by an anonymous author, a portion is related here:
Young ladies in town, and those that live round, Let a friend at this season advise you; Since money’s so scarce, and times growing worse, Strange things may soon hap and surprise you. First, then, throw aside your topknots of pride; Wear none but your own country linen; of economy boast, let your pride be the most To show clothes of your own make and spinning. What if homespun they say is not quite so gay As brocades, yet be not in a passion, For when once it is known this is much worn in town, One and all will cry out – ‘Tis the fashion! And, as one, all agree, that you’ll not married be To such as will wear London factory, But at firstsight refuse, tell ’em such you will choose As encourage our own manufactory. Then make yourselves easy, for no one will teaze ye, Nor tax you, if chancing to sneer, At the sense-ridden tools, who think us all fools; But they’ll find the reverse far and near.
Boycotts of British goods caused colonial women to make drastic adjustments, not only in what they purchased, but also in their attitudes to social norms. The mention of making homespun “fashionable” required a Patriotic mindset in which women rose to the occasion. Many women had to relearn forgotten skills such as spinning and weaving, arts that due to inexpensive British textiles, were unnecessary to be passed down from mother to daughter.
In some cases, Patriotic verse was disguised as children’s poems, when examining the ideology contained reveals a different motive. A Ballad Sheet that was printed in 1775 and reprinted in newspapers and titled “ALPHABET for LITTLE MASTERS AND MISSES” was clearly is intended not for the “little ones” but for their parents instead.
A, stands for Americans, who scorn to be slaves;
B, for Boston, where fortitude their freedom saves;
C, stands for Congress, which, though loyal, will be free;
D, stands for defense, ‘gainst force and tyranny.
Stand Firmly, A and Z,
We swear forever to be free!
E, stands for evils, which a civil war must bring;
F, stands for fate, dreadful to both people and king;
G, stands for George, may God give him Wisdom and grace;
H, stands for hypocrite, who wears a double face.
J, stands for justice, which traitors in power defy,
The remainder of the poem continues with adult themed anti-loyalist rhetoric. The verses include themes that are central to the Independence movement ideology: That Colonist would not be “Slaves”, which is ironic since Africans are enslaved by the colonists themselves, that Civil War is “necessary” to escape the King’s tyranny, and perhaps most telling of audience
targeting is the statement that, to the King, “The axe” be applied. Not typical children’s fare, even in the eighteenth century.
Patriotic sentiment could also be riled with atrocities committed by British troops in the Colonies, even if the details are embellished or exaggerated. Two examples of which are poems
that elicit Colonist ire describe the Boston Massacre, not necessarily from a correct historic standpoint, but from a point of view sure to spark outrage upon the listener of the poem.
A Verse Occasioned by the late Horrid Massacre in King-Street, a broadside that appeared in 1770 gave a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings of that fateful day:
You true Sons of Liberty, who value your lives,
Your estates and your freedom, your children and wives;
A story I’ll tell you that’s truth now indeed,
And when you hear it your hearts it will bleed.
It’s of the bad soldiers who all was combined,
And to murder the lads of the Ropewalk designed
With their bayonets drawed they came to attack,
But the boys in their woolens did drive them back.
On the evening of Monday some soldiers were seen,
Parading with their cutlasses keen,
They walked up and down with their Bayonets draw’d
Wounding the poor people who came up the road.
Two lads that was walking together ‘tis said,
About nine in the evening and was not afraid,
A Soldier they saw arm’d with a long sword,
The poem continued in the same fashion to chronograph the events of the encounter between British soldiers and Boston residents, concludes with the Colonists victory over the Brits described in this verse:
The 19th Regiment got all of their arms,
The Bells all rang and the town was alarm’d
Then every man kept his station that day,
Also of note is that on the broadsheet appears the image of five coffins, complete with skeletons in each to commemorate the victims of the event. These same images appear on a similar work that describes the same days events, entitled “A Poem, In Memory of the (never to be forgotten) FIFTH OF MARCH 1770”. The poem’s introduction states: “On the Evening of which, a party of the 29th Regiment commanded by Capt. Preston, fired upon the inhabitants in King Street, by which five pilgrims were killed.” A sampling of the verses indicate not only
a memorial to the men who were killed, but also includes warnings that no colonist is safe from the British troops who inhabit the streets of Boston:
The (unreadable) sun bespeaks the mournful day,
When youth (although innocent) in blood did lay,
when bloody men shot forth darts of death,
FIVE of our fellow-creatures drop’t their breath.
Down in the dark and silent graves they lie,
their bodies rest, but vengeance is their cry,
O may this day then be never forgot,
Remember well the place, the bloody spot.
The Poem’s concluding verse was a call to citizens to recognize the threat that the British soldiers pose to all innocents:
If bloody men intrude upon our land,
Where shall we go, where shall we stand?
Then I may wander to some distant shore,
Neither of these accounts of the Boston Massacre aligns with modern theories of how these soldiers stationed in their city performed that day. However, citizens of Boston needed little encouragement to distrust the British soldiers and these poems served as a means of spreading the news of those events that unfolded in 1770. Residents took these descriptions at face value, and outrage soon ensued in the part of many colonists.
Just as important as enticing support for the war was keeping men in the service. At the outbreak of hostilities between the Colonists and the Crown, Patriotic emotions were tempered by hardships on the home front while the citizen-soldier was away from his farm and family. It was crucial to maintain support for the war and to keep these men and women committed to the cause of American Independence. Henry Archer, an Englishman who made his way to America in 1778 penned this often sung tribute to the men who made up the Continental army.
Here’s to the soldier, tho batter’d in wars,
And safe to his farmhouse retir’d;
When called by his country, ne’er thinks of his scars,
With ardor to join us inspir’d.
Bright fame appears,
To veteran chiefs who become volunteers.
Here’s to the farmer who dares to advance,
To harvests of honor with pleasure;
Who with a slave the most skillful in France,
A sword for his country would measure.
henc’e with cold fear,
Hero’s rise here;
This selected portion of the poem does not include stanzas in which the author mentions the sacrifices of merchants, “Squires”, and politicians. The majority of the poem is devoted to those who made up the bulk of the continental army, Farmers and common men. Keeping these men
committed and in service was crucial to the Continental army, and honoring these men with prose and song was two of the most important methods of eliciting that support.
Perhaps the most compelling persuasions of the time were made from the pulpit.
In addition to extolling the word of God, many clerics were powerful influences on their own right in their communities as well. Elisha Rich, 1740-1804, a self-described “Minister of the Gospel” was a prolific writer as well as a dedicated supporter of the Patriotic movement. He penned this broadside in 1775 and it was published and distributed in Chelmsford Mass. The title of the poem is indicative of its subject matter: A poem on the bloody engagement that was fought on Bunker’s Hill in Charlestown New England on the 17th of June. 1775. “Together with some remarks on the cruelty and barbarity of the British troops.”
Rich describes the details of the battle and the bravery of the Colonists who fought to defend their homelands, but adds God to rhetoric, which may have been the deciding factor for some to decide to support the break from England. A portion of Rich’s poem demonstrates his feelings toward the invading Brits:
When their troops (British) had landed there,
Men to fight them did prepare,
And when our men shot their first round,
The Brittans gasped and hit the ground.
O may we neer forget the day,
when Charlestown in it’s ruins did lay.
Any many of our sons did die
and (unreadable) before their enemy.
Mothers lament their sons that fell,
And wife’s the loss of husbands tell,
Their cries may cause the hardest heart
With distress to bear a part.
They tyrants may no more arise
And brand their swords with haugh,
May Heaven cause their pride to cease,
Music and poetry played a vital role in the events leading up to the war and during the conflict itself. Prose was a way that details could be easily memorized and passed on to other soldiers and citizens. Songs invoked passion and outrage, sentiment and Patriotism. Soldier musicians made difficult winter months passable with sentimental ballads of sweethearts and home, and justified sacrifices and suffering the ill-equipped continental army endured.
On the home front, these same songs and poetry lent strength to women and families who struggled to maintain a sense of the ordinary with husbands and sons off to war.
The most important contribution was, however, their usefulness as propaganda to elicit support for the Whig’s war effort. Certainly, many of these songs and poems were not intended for such use and were not used in that manner, but just from exposure to passionate verse about the massacre of innocent citizens in Boston would enrage colonists, even if the prose were skewed in a manner that made other conclusions nearly impossible.
(Boston Mass. 1770)
(Boston Mass. 1770)
(Boston Mass. 1770)
(Boston Mass. 1770)