Disgruntled colonists gathered under a towering yellow tulip poplar in Annapolis 224 years ago to debate whether the time had come to run British sympathizers out of town.
Today, scientists will meet under the same grand old tree in hopes of cloning a successor to the nation's last surviving Liberty Tree.
The Liberty Tree was Maryland's version of Boston's Liberty Tree, a large elm around which colonists began gathering in 1765 to protest British rule. Tax collectors were hanged in effigy there, and disgruntled citizens in other colonial cities adopted their own large trees as meeting places. When the famous pamphleteer Thomas Paine celebrated the trees in verse in 1775, they became a potent symbol of the struggle for independence.
The British chopped down many of the landmarks, and others succumbed to age or weather. Now, only one is left, standing on the grounds of St. John's College in Annapolis.
In an effort to raise recognition of Maryland's historical treasures, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) will host an afternoon ceremony today in which technicians will extract genetic material from the gnarly 96-foot-tall tree. The material then will be used to clone new Liberty Trees in time for the new millennium.
"We're taking something that's very much part of our past, and we're perpetuating it for our future," said Louise Hayman, executive director of the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, a state-funded organization that is sponsoring the event.
The state plans to donate clones of the Liberty Tree to the 49 other states, Hayman said. The original 13 states will get the first clones.
"The chances of this working are fifty-fifty at best," said Gary Coleman, the plant physiologist from the University of Maryland who is in charge of the cloning effort. "The difficulty of cloning a tree is directly proportional to its age, and this is a very old tree."
Coleman says his team will try three methods to reproduce the tree, now estimated to be 400 years old.
One will be the age-old method of plant cloning: taking a six-inch cutting from the tree and trying to get it to take root.
The two other methods involve the modern biotechnology of producing a tissue culture. In one, the tip of a growing shoot from the top of the tree will be grown in a sterile dish with nutrients. In the other, a bit of leaf will be used.
"If everything proceeds according to plans, we should have clones of this tree growing in pots in a greenhouse in six months," Coleman said. "They could then be planted anywhere in the spring."
The Annapolis Liberty Tree has been cloned before, according to Eugene Papenfuse, Maryland's state archivist. But, ironically, the resulting sapling was transplanted to Kew Gardens in London.
It was resentment of taxes imposed by the royal government in London that drew Marylanders to the tree in September 1775. In the words of one 19th-century historical account, residents were notified "by the beating of drums and a proclamation for the inhabitants to assemble at the Liberty Tree."
As colonists gathered, radical advocates of independence offered a petition calling for the expulsion from Annapolis of anyone who refused to go along with the boycott of British commercial interests. The resolution, which went further than measures adopted by colonial leaders, quickly went down in defeat.
"Marylanders were reluctant revolutionaries," Papenfuse said. The state was "not directly governed by England but by a charter government named by Lord Baltimore, which gave extraordinary powers to an elected legislature. They were more willing to work things out without war."
But when the British crown imposed taxes above and beyond what the elected assembly had approved, sentiment for independence grew in Maryland. Five years later, the Liberty Tree "was in yellow leaf when 4,000 French troops marched through the city to join General Washington at Yorktown," according to a history of the tree found on the St. John's College Web site (www.sjca.edu/college/tour/
After the revolution, the Liberty Tree endured as a symbol of successful struggle. When the aging French general Marquis de Lafayette made a triumphant return tour of the United States in December 1824, he was honored with two days of festivities under the tree, Papenfuse said.
Through the rest of the 19th century, Papenfuse said, the tree was a popular spot for Fourth of July celebrations. More recently, St. John's has held its commencement ceremonies and croquet matches under its 60-foot-wide boughs.
Marc Apter, spokesman for the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, said that the Massachusetts committee organizing the millennium celebration in Boston had independently planned to plant a tree at the site of the original Liberty Tree.
"When we heard about that, we invited them to come to our ceremony. They'll get one of the clones, which they will plant in Boston," Apter said. "So this tree will live on where the Liberty Tree idea first started."
CAPTION: Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) reads a plaque on the Liberty Tree at St. John's College in Annapolis.
CAPTION: Maryland hopes to clone the Liberty Tree, a towering yellow tulip poplar estimated to be 400 years old, and donate the clones to the 49 other states.