The spread of Liberty

Tree: Through cloning, Maryland officials are hoping to pass on to other states a still-growing piece of U.S. history.

June 02, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

A handful of seemingly harmless trees were among the first casualties when British troops occupied the major cities of America's 13 colonies in the 1770s.

Troops from the motherland chopped down Liberty Trees, under which colonists gathered to denounce British oppression, sing songs of revolution, hang effigies of unpopular officials and incite rebellion. They hacked the city of Charleston's tree into bits and turned Boston's shady elm into firewood for British troops.

The few trees that remained eventually succumbed to natural deaths -- with the exception of one.

A towering tulip poplar in the heart of the serene gardens of St. John's College in Annapolis is the only survivor of the 13 trees that came to symbolize the uprising that created America.

As part of the millennium celebration, Maryland officials have decided to share their precious smidgen of rare, historic flora with the rest of the country. A University of Maryland poplar reproduction expert is heading a research team that is determined to create replicas of the St. John's tree for the other Liberty Tree-less 49 states.

"Our millennium celebration is a look back on our past and an attempt to save the past for the future," said Louise Hayman, executive director of Gov. Parris Glendening's Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, which spearheaded the poplar cloning. "You can plant any old tree tomorrow and say it's a Liberty Tree, but this does make a much stronger connection to the past. When you say this was cloned from an actual Liberty Tree that has stood for 400 years in Maryland, it fits in."

State Archivist Edward Papenfuse estimates that the St. John's tree grew from a seedling sometime in 1600, more than three decades before Maryland was established. In 1765, a group that called itself the Sons of Liberty began meeting "under the protection of the spreading limbs of a great tree" in each colony to protest British rule, Papenfuse said.

The massive trees were generally in the centers of large open spaces where crowds of 50 to more than 100 could be accommodated, and they rapidly became potent metaphors for the colonists' fight for liberty.

"The eagle is a symbol of America, but there are a number of historians that talk about the Liberty Tree as a much better symbol," said Marc Apter, a Celebration 2000 spokesman who has worked on the cloning project.

"At the time, what the Sons of Liberty were attempting to do was pretty darn dramatic, and the Liberty Trees were a symbol of that dissension."

The Annapolis tree survived when British troops encountered military opposition in their takeovers of the colonies' major seaport, Papenfuse said.

"The British passed Annapolis by and went on to Philadelphia," he said. "The one that has survived in Annapolis is the only one that I know of. But in Charleston, the story goes that someone dug up the roots and made them into heads of [walking] canes and presented a head of a cane to Thomas Jefferson."

The 96-foot-high Annapolis tree, with a crown that spreads more than 60 feet, has dodged more than just the British. It has weathered frost damage, the stress of students and visitors stomping around its roots, and even a fire in its trunk 150 years ago. Early this century, the hollow trunk was filled with concrete for reinforcement.

In 1976, state officials began discussing production of Liberty Tree descendants through seeds from the Annapolis tree. But the tree's age hampered its yield of healthy seeds. Technology presented another option when scientists cloned a sheep named Dolly -- and the Celebration 2000 commission began plotting the spread of Liberty yet again.

"A Frenchman once said that liberty is the right to discipline oneself so as not to be disciplined by others," Papenfuse said. "We do take liberty for granted, but we should stop and think sometimes of how we got to where we are and how much pain and travail we've gone through and how so many people from so many nations have managed to come together and live peacefully.

"We live in a great nation, in which liberty carries with it a great deal of responsibility. It's very important for us to remember what liberty is all about."

So tomorrow, to the sound of a fife and drum band, biotechnology researchers will be hoisted on a cherry picker into the branches of the lone remaining Liberty Tree, to clip genetic samples from the highest and newest branches.

That will be the start of three- to six-months of work in College Park laboratories. Project organizers, who hope to pass on to future generations a still-growing piece of American history, are taking their inspiration from patriot Thomas Paine, who called for preservation of the symbol in a 1775 poem:

"From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,

Through the land let the sound of it flee,

Let the far and the near, all unite with a cheer,

In defence of our Liberty Tree."

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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