Guided Primary Source Analysis: Tree of Liberty

Tree of liberty
“The free population of the United States enjoying the refreshing shade of the tree of liberty.” 1846 Summary: A somewhat puzzling commentary on two issues: slavery and economic protectionism. The date of the print is uncertain, but it may have appeared as part of the reaction against the Walker Tariff of 1846. A Northern bias is expressed on both issues. The text is abolitionist on the one hand and laments the absence of federal protection for American industry on the other. The author of the piece (which is less a cartoon than an arrangement of didactic tableaux) presents through his characters a number of reasoned arguments on the respective economics of slave and free industry and suggests a parallel between the hardships posed by the lack of protection for American manufacturers and the plight of the slaves. The irony of the piece rests on the fact that only the Southern slaveholder, whose interests were best served by the 1846 tariff, enjoys the shade of the symbolic Liberty Tree, which looms up in the foreground. Slave owner, fanned by a Negro slave: “Surrounded by Slaves & basking at ease by their labor we can have a clearer conception of the value of Liberty.” Man borne in a litter by slaves: “Rather than submit to be a slave I would make our State a cemetery of Freemen.” Slaves working under the whip of an overseer at right: “I had as lief work as not. If I had my own time to do it in.” and “Who likes to be bound down to a Massa.” Another: “Give me my own Country before Slavery.” Further right a group of slaves converse: “Poor Sampson is dead!” “Is there nothing we can do?” “How many poor fellows heads have been stuck upon poles!” “The American People will come to a sense of Justice.” “If they won’t liberate “us,” let our Children be free.” “Our rejoicing on Bobalition days shew we are not the savages the white people take us to be.” “And should our children be free when they are born they might learn the habits of industry & for hire do more work than any of our brethren are now willing to do.” “We must be away Massa will see us.” In the right background is a steam sawmill whose proprietor frets over his slaves, who run off saying, “Let’s have a play spell” and “I’ll be off.” The owner laments, “What shall I do with my Slaves, they cost me more than their income, and they are more plague than profit, & if I could devise any means to get rid of them, what a triumph it would be–how can it be done without being a serious evil.” The left half of the composition represents the North. Near the Liberty Tree two farmers converse: “I would not have a Slave to till my soil, to carry me, to fan me, to tremble when I wake for all the wealth that sinews bought & sold have earnt.” “No! dear as freedom is, & in my heart’s just estimation prized above all price I’d rather be myself the slave & wear the bonds than fasten them on him.” Nearby a group of gentlemen speak: “O America! vast–wide–extended; a population increasing almost past calculation, embracing within thy limits some of almost every nation a refuge for the weary & distressed a home for the free; But O Slavery!! where will be thy bounds?” “Slaves cannot breathe in England, if their lungs receive ‘its air’ that moment they are free– they touch ‘that Country & their Shackles fall.” In the background is a textile mill. Outside are several groups of mill girls. Their conversations concern the tariff and its effects: “What a noise the Southerners have been making about the Tariff.” “I hope it is all over now.” Second group: “I think if they will protect us Girls from the operation of foreign legislation as well as seamen against Pirates, we can make cloth as cheap as any body.” “I dont believe English Girls can do more than we can.” “The machinery went well to day.” “I wove seventy yards.” “I have got so as to tend three Looms.” A third group: “I wonder what effect the taking the duty off Linen will have?” “Well in proportion as linen is used there will be less Cotton.” “I Guess it will set the poor Irishmen to raising Flax.” In the center, beyond the tree, a man on horseback leads a black woman carrying a bundle toward the right or Southern side of the print.

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The illustration shows both northern and southern points of view. What groups are represented in the northern point of view? What groups are represented in the southern point of view?

What issues do each group from the North raise? What issues do each group from the South raise?

What issues would you place under a tree of liberty for the United States today? Explain your choices.

What other observations, reflections or questions does this source inspire? Let us know!

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