Dickinson’s “Liberty Song”
John Dickinson of Delaware is generally credited with being the author of the first patriotic song in America. Dickinson was an ardent patriot, even though he did at first oppose the Declaration of Independence, because he doubted the policy of Congress “without some percursory trials of our strength.” He had long been active in public affairs as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1764, and of the Congress of 1765. In 1768 he contributed his Liberty Song to the Boston Gazette, which he set to the British tune “Heart of Oak.”1
The lyrics and ballads of the Revolutionary War refer constantly to stirring events. The Battle of Trenton, Burgoyne’s proclamation on June 20th, 1777, and his defeat at Saratoga in the same year, provided plenty of material for the poets of the day. In 1778 Francis Hopkinson wrote his famous poem, The Battle of the Kegs, satirizing the alarm of the British as they destroyed the powder kegs the Americans had floated down the Delaware to annoy British shipping. This, presumably, was sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle.
It was in 1778 also that Hopkinson wrote the words and music of his Toast to Washington. The words appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet of April 8th and the music was found in a manuscript book in Hopkinson’s handwriting. The Toast, with its music, was published in 1799, by Benjamin Carr of Philadelphia together with Brother Soldiers, All Hail, “a favorite new patriotic song in favor of Washington.” The music of this latter song was the Washington March No. 1.
Adaptations of “God Save the King”
Until 1776 God Save the King was the national anthem of the British Colonies, as well as of England. The complete break with the mother country came with the Declaration of Independence, and of course her national hymn ceased to be ours. But the tune was current throughout America, and it was but natural that it should be adapted to new words by American patriots. One of these sets of verses may possibly be dated as early as 1776. It refers to Washington’s command, and to the death of Montgomery, who fell in the 1775 campaign against Quebec.
William Billings’ Chester has been termed the “Over There” of the Revolution, and while Yankee Doodle was no doubt the most used marching song, Chester was certainly sung by the troops throughout the Continental Army. Billings had originally written the melody as a hymn-tune, but when his second book, The Singing Master’s Assistant, appeared in 1778, it contained Chester as a war song, with new words.
Between 1911 and 1931, over 40 bills and resolutions were introduced in Congress attempting to establish a national anthem. Chester, along with Yankee Doodle, God Bless America, and America the Beautiful were among the front runners. The proponents of Chester were quick to point out that the words and lyrics were wholly American, unlike others, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, the music of which was an 18th century British drinking song Anacreon in Heaven. Its detractors pointed out that its lyrics were obviously dated, and the reference to “New England’s God” rankled sectionalists in other parts of the country.
Many of the above tunes can be found in the 18th Century Songbooks sold at this web site.
1 “Heart of Oak” is the official march of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom.The music was composed by Dr William Boyce and the words were written by the 18th Century English actor David Garrick. Heart of Oak was originally written as an opera.