When in the course of human events, a majestic tulip poplar in Annapolis emerged as a rallying ground for those declaring independence from Britain, a decent respect for American history impelled the local citizenry to preserve and protect and revere it for the next 224 years.

Then came Hurricane Floyd.

The storm's strong winds last month battered the famed Liberty Tree on the campus of St. John's College to the point that one expert concluded it now is "at great risk of massive structural failure." So yesterday, the proverbial ax fell--with a real one to follow soon.

"With sadness in our hearts we have accepted the expert opinions of a number of very qualified arborists, and we have determined the Liberty Tree should come down," St. John's President Christopher B. Nelson said in a statement released yesterday.

The tree will be cut down after a brief public ceremony early next week. Wood from the tree then will be made into mementos for students, faculty and staff, according to St. John's spokeswoman Barbara Goyette. Other remnants, she said, will be sold to the public.

Two centuries ago, the Liberty Tree was Maryland's version of a massive elm in Boston around which colonists began gathering in 1765 to protest British rule. As would-be revolutionaries in other colonies adopted large trees as meeting places, pamphleteer Tom Paine celebrated the leafy spots in a popular poem in 1775, and they became a potent symbol of the desire for independence.

During the war for independence, the British chopped down the Liberty Trees in several colonies. In others, the trees survived the war only to succumb to disease and age. But Annapolis's Liberty Tree survived.

When Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who aided the American revolutionists, made a triumphant, nostalgic tour of America in 1824, he was feted for two days at ceremonies around the tree.

In the 1920s, St. John's began holding its commencement ceremonies under the tree. More recently, the croquet teams from St. John's and the Naval Academy have staged their annual competition beneath its broad boughs.

But when the high winds of Hurricane Floyd left the tree's main trunk with a 15-foot fracture up its main trunk, the college promptly fenced off the area and called in several tree experts. Nelson, the school president, pledged to spare no expense to rescue the tree, which he called "a symbol of our national identity."

But the four arborists consulted by the college agreed that the tree could not be saved.

The decisive report came from Russell Carlson, a specialist in tree structure from Bear, Del., who examined the tree Oct. 5. In an interview yesterday, Carlson said the trunk appeared to be mostly hollow and not likely to hold together much longer.

Carlson's report, submitted yesterday to the college and the state Department of General Services, noted that while the tree measures 102 inches in diameter, there was as little as five inches of solid wood in some parts of its trunk.

"That's not enough solid wood to support its weight," he said. "It could come down in wind. It could even come down on a calm day."

Michael Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), said the governor was "extraordinarily sad that the arborist did not have better news."

Although the tree must come down, scientists are hoping that they may one day be able to produce a copy. Cuttings from the St. John's tree were collected last summer in an effort to cultivate new Liberty Trees. University of Maryland scientists hope to have seedlings big enough to plant this winter.

CAPTION: The Liberty Tree at St. John's College in Annapolis is to be chopped down next week.