ANNAPOLIS – It has been over seven years since the storied, 400-year-old Liberty Tree on the St. John’s College campus succumbed to old age and weather-inflicted injuries, and its absence left an historic and symbolic void felt by both the college and the community.
On Friday, the St. John’s senior class stepped in to fill that void, planting a new, 12-year-old tulip poplar in the place where the tree that once served as a meeting place for American revolutionaries once stood.
“It’s such a meaningful symbol,” said senior Lia Boyle, 21, of Baltimore County, who was on the gift committee that decided to make the tree its legacy to the college. “We didn’t want to just give something to current students, but something that can mean something to alumni when they come back to campus.”
The new tree was a long time in coming. Ever since the old Liberty Tree was removed in October 1999, St. John’s students had been talking about trying to find a replacement.
Attempts were made to grow a new sapling from still-living parts of the old tree, but they all failed. Finally, this year’s senior class went ahead with plans to fill the spot where the other stood, and on Thursday the seniors raised nearly $5,000 in donations to purchase the new tree.
Thus, before a small crowd of faculty and students gathered on the college’s front lawn in the balmy spring weather, the 30-foot-tall tree was set down in a hole where the roots of the old Liberty Tree were still visible.
Truck driver Rod McNeil, of the Royal Tree Service in Crownsville, brought the new tree from an old, overgrown nursery in Queenstown.
Though the tree is not a direct descendant of the original Liberty Tree, it is not far away from another towering tulip poplar that is. Known as Son of Liberty, this tree was planted on the college lawn in 1889.
For some college staff, like Vice President Jeff Bishop, who has worked at the school for 20 years, the new tree resurrected old memories for the college and the community.
“It brings back a historic artifact that’s meaningful not just to us but the people who live in Annapolis,” said Bishop.
The original Liberty Tree, already suffering from old age, met its demise after it sustained structural damage from Hurricane Floyd.
Like Liberty Trees in each of the 13 original American colonies, it played a central role in early American history. The St. John’s tree in Annapolis, though, had a special place – it had been the last one standing.
According to Bishop, American revolutionaries chose to meet under the trees because indoor meetings were considered by the ruling British to be acts of sedition. Legend has it that it was after gathering beneath the Liberty Tree that a crowd of Annapolitan patriots attacked the British merchant ship Peggy Stewart anchored at the nearby harbor because it carried a cargo of boycotted British tea.
But the Liberty Tree was not just a historic artifact in early American history. It was also entwined with the history and tradition of St. John’s College.
“[Students and alumni] got misty when the tree came down. There was a lot of resistance to taking it down. People wanted to explore all the options,” said Gina Lee, advancement officer at the college.
The Liberty Tree was a central landmark for many events on campus. Starting in 1929, commencement ceremonies took place under the Liberty Tree. And for decades the annual croquet matches between St. John’s and the Naval Academy took place under its branches. Lee also said that the tree has been the sight of several weddings for alumni.
“It re-invokes a lot of memories and a lot of traditions and a lot of historical reminders,” said Bishop.
The tree was also fitting for senior student Emma Plaut who the night before read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy In America,” a book extolling the virtues of the American political system. “It’s nice to have a symbol right here. … It’s pretty fitting.”