June 11, 2011

Freneau: So just, so virtuous is your cause

On June 11, 1775, George Washington wrote to British General Thomas Gage condemning the treatment of colonial officers taken prisoner in the early part of the American Revolution. "The officers engaged in the cause of liberty and their country, who by fortune of war had fallen into your hands," Washington wrote, "have been thrown indiscriminately into a common gaol appropriate for felons." In response, he threatened to treat his own prisoners in the same manner. The next day, Gage announced that the colonies were no longer under the protection of the King of England due to "incendiaries and traitors" who had perpetrated "crimes" against the authority of the monarchy.

Philip Freneau, one of the earliest American poets, responded by writing "To the Americans." The poem urged his countrymen to accept their new label as "rebels" and criminals:

  Rebels you are—the British champion cries—
Truth, stand thou forth!—and tell the wretch, He lies:—
Rebels!—and see this mock imperial lord
Already threats these rebels with the cord.
  The hour draws nigh, the glass is almost run,
When truth will shine, and ruffians be undone;
When this base miscreant will forbear to sneer,
And curse his taunts and bitter insults here.
  If to controul the cunning of a knave,
Freedom respect, and scorn the name of slave;
If to protest against a tyrant's laws,
And arm for vengeance in a righteous cause,
Be deemed Rebellion—'tis a harmless thing:
This bug-bear name, like death, has lost its sting.
Americans! at freedom's fane adore!
But trust to Britain, and her flag, no more;
The generous genius of their isle has fled,
And left a mere impostor in his stead.
  If conquered, rebels (their Scotch records show),
Receive no mercy from the parent foe;
Nay, even the grave, that friendly haunt of peace,
(Where Nature gives the woes of man to cease,)
Vengeance will search—and buried corpses there
Be raised, to feast the vultures of the air—
Be hanged on gibbets, such a war they wage—
Such are the devils that swell our souls with rage!
  If Britain conquers, help us, heaven, to fly:
Lend us your wings, ye ravens of the sky;—
If Britain conquers—we exist no more;
These lands will redden with their children's gore,
Who, turned to slaves, their fruitless toils will moan,
Toils in these fields that once they called their own!
  To arms! to arms! and let the murdering sword
Decide who best deserves the hangman's cord:
Nor think the hills of Canada too bleak
When desperate Freedom is the prize you seek;
For that, the call of honour bids you go
O'er frozen lakes and mountains wrapt in snow:
No toils should daunt the nervous and the bold,
They scorn all heat or wave-congealing cold.
  Haste!—to your tents in iron fetters bring
These slaves, that serve a tyrant and a king;
So just, so virtuous is your cause, I say,
Hell must prevail if Britain gains the day.

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