Hidden Nearby: Goshen’s Liberty Pole

Note: Occasionally Hidden in Plain Sight will leave the environs of Litchfield in search of the historical landscape of the area.

On this Fourth of July, a marker on East Street North in nearby Goshen, Connecticut, allows us a window on to past celebrations of American freedoms and liberties.

John Adams famously believed that the signing of the Declaration of Independence “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” He was not far from the mark; he erred only in believing that the celebrations would be held on July 2nd, the day the Continental Congress approved the document.

Raising a Liberty Pole in New York City, 1765

In Adams’ time, American patriots expressed their desire for freedom with liberty poles. Liberty poles were a common sight in the years before and during the American Revolution. These were tall, wooden poles, planted in the ground; they were different from regular flag poles in that they were usually topped by either a banner emblazoned with patriotic phrases or a liberty cap. (Liberty caps were conical-shaped hats, often made out of felt or other soft material; they were associated with the quest of Roman slaves for freedom.)

Liberty poles were often seen flying a red ensign; this was a signal for patriots to assemble to discuss the latest acts of British oppression. Naturally, British authorities objected to this means of communication between rebels, and the poles were destroyed. Just as quickly, however, they were rebuilt by Americans – especially the Sons of Liberty.

A French liberty pole

Liberty poles became symbolic of liberty, freedom and independence, and their use caught on in France during the French Revolution. They were also used as symbols of protest by farmers in western Pennsylvania during the period of the Whiskey Rebellion, from 1791 to 1794. As a symbol of liberty and freedom, the liberty pole was a popular image on 19th century American coins. In this 1857 “half dime,” the seated figure of Liberty holds a liberty pole topped with a liberty (or Phyrgian cap) in her left hand:

One wonders about Goshen’s liberty pole; it seems unlikely that there were many people in the area to gather around it in 1776. Why was it erected at this site, and not in the center of town? Was it, perhaps, simply a patriotic statement by an individual? Has there been a dramatic shift in the population center of Goshen? (There are other remnants of colonial Goshen further north on East Street.) Still, the town was proud of its patriotic activity in the Revolutionary Era and chose to commemorate it for the nation’s bicentennial. The town’s history records the events of July 4, 1876:

“In the early morning a company had assembled at the spot where a liberty pole had stood during the Revolution, and with appropriate ceremonies the stars and stripes were raised and flung to the breeze.”

One hundred years later, Goshen’s liberty pole was rededicated, as part of the official celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. A stone marker was dedicated, bearing the official seal of the Bicentennial, a flag pole erected behind it, and a time capsule buried.

We will celebrate the 236th anniversary of the nation’s independence in the style predicted by Adams – with pomp, parades, sports, and illuminations. Still, it is worth a trip to Goshen to be reminded of how freedom and liberty were celebrated in a simpler time.

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