Newport, RI’s Liberty Square


Just across Marlborough St. from The White Horse Tavern is a triangular patch of land known as Liberty Square. The square was donated to the Newport Magistrates in the mid-18th century by members of the Newport Artillery.  The donation was intended to establish a “Mustering Place” where free men could assemble and speak freely under the protection of habeas corpus – a writ requiring a person be brought to court as a protection against illegal imprisonment.

In the heat of our nation’s revolutionary period, militia officers Thurston and Sheffield relinquished their deed to Liberty Square rendering it free from ownership by any corporation, person, city, state or country.  As a result, this little patch of land is not considered real estate, but is more accurately described as “Surreal Estate,” a gift of freedom to our city and our nation.

Many (including this author – see George Sullivan’s comment below) mistake Liberty Square for Ellery Park located at the confluence of Farewell and Thames Street. A very old tree stands there marking the spot where 18th century slaves and free men organized and protested.

In 1755, prior to the Revolutionary War and the British occupation of Newport, Newport’s slaves gathered here to hold the first African election. They congregated under a great tree described in1766 by owner William Reed as a “large buttonwood tree,”  to elect a governor for the coming year.  A great celebration followed with wrestling, a procession, African songs and music.  The slave elections continued every June until 1776 when the Revolution put an end to nearly all of Newport’s celebrations.

Later, the Sons of Liberty gathered at the towering tree to protest the Stamp Act.  In April, 1766 the British Parliament imposed the tax to raise money after the Seven Years War. The Act required a tax stamp on all official Colonial documents.  In protest, mock hangings of members of Parliament and mock funerals of Liberty itself took place at Liberty Trees and Liberty Poles throughout the Colonies.  Angry protests rang out in towns from New Hampshire to Philadelphia, and The Act was eventually repealed.

Upon learning of the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, William Read, a wealthy Newport politician and merchant, deeded Ellery Park to fellow Sons of Liberty, William Ellery, Robert Crook, John Collins and Samuel Fowler (William Ellery later became a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and Ellery Park continued to serve as a symbolic gathering place in the fight for Freedom.

That the Sons of Liberty choose to extoll the virtues of freedom under the very same tree where their slaves assembled, lends a certain irony to the legacy of Ellery Park and its Liberty Tree. It is clear, however, that the towering tree there symbolized rebirth, strength and independence to both groups.Historic Print depicting Newport's Liberty Tree

It is believed the British cut down the original Liberty Tree during the Revolutionary War.  A very old specimen tree still stands in its place to remind us of its role in the formation of our country.

For more on this topic read Edward Andrews, Paper “Creatures of Mimic & Imitation…”