Liberty Poles

Soon after the appearance of William Hogarth's 1763 print of John Wilkes holding a liberty pole topped with a liberty cap, American colonists embraced the symbols to represent their own views of political liberty. Liberty poles with various banners were raised in numerous towns to protest the Stamp Act of 1765 and to celebrate its repeal in 1766. In New York, British troops on at least four occasions destroyed the liberty pole erected by the Sons of Liberty, leading to a minor skirmish in January 1770. Soon the liberty pole became the public symbol of American opposition to king and Parliament; suspected Tories were sometimes forced to kiss the liberty pole, and tax collectors were hung in effigy from them. In response to such events, British troops purposefully cut down Concord's liberty pole before the battle began there in April 1775.

The enduring political importance of the symbol was reflected in the first design for the Great Seal of the United States in 1776, depicting the goddess of liberty holding a liberty pole and cap, and it also was represented on U.S. coins from 1793 until 1891. The icon is still found today on the state flag of New York and the state seals of New Jersey, North Carolina, and Arkansas.

After the American Revolution, the raising of liberty poles continued as a form of protest against policies of the new national government. Liberty poles were raised by insurgents during the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries' Rebellion against federal taxes and by Republicans protesting the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. As early as 1792, depictions of the liberty pole and cap also became associated with the critique of slavery. During the nineteenth century, the term "liberty pole" came to mean practically any flagpole, whether permanently erected in a community or raised to support particular issues.


Olson, Lester C. Emblems of American Community in the Revolutionary Era: A Study in Rhetorical Iconography. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1991.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. "Liberty Tree: A Genealogy." New England Quarterly 25 (1952): 435–457.