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Tumbled Down: George III in New York City

On the night of July 9, 1776, brigades of the Continental Army assembled on the common in New York City to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence. General Washington issued the directive in his General Orders, commanding that at 6:00 “the several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades…when the declaration of Congress…is to be read with an audible voice.” Washington was cognizant that his troops were already weary from a recent march from Boston, where his Continental Army secured a key victory over British General William Howe’s forces after a long series of engagements that had ended only in early March.

Pulling down the statue of George III by the “Sons of Freedom,” at the Bowling Green, City of New York, July 1776 / painted by Johannes A. Oertel ; engraved by John C. McRae. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Washington hoped that hearing the words of the declaration would “serve as a fresh incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage” in the certain engagements troops now faced in New York. Samuel Blachley Webb, one of Washington’s aides-de-camp, witnessed the event, recording that troops reacted to the Declaration with “three Huzzas,” and that “every one (was) seeming highly pleased that we were separated from a King who was endeavoring to enslave his once loyal subjects.”

The reading had the desired effect, though Webb may have understated the troops’ vigor. Shortly after the conclusion of the public reading, some of the zealous troops rushed down Broadway, and within less than a mile found themselves face to face with the statue of George III standing prominently on the Bowling Green. Barely six years old, the New York General Assembly erected the statue on August 21, 1770. The Assembly ordered the statue, along with its companion of William Pitt, in celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Colonists once sought to celebrate the king, erecting his statue “to perpetuate to the latest Posterity, the deep Sense this Colony has of the eminent and singular Blessings received from him during his most auspicious Reign.” In 1776, his visage was antagonistic—and antithetical—to the colonists-turned-soldiers in Washington’s Continental Army.

“Last night the Statue of George the third was tumbled down and beheaded,” wrote Webb on July 10, “the troops having long had an inclination so to do, tho’t this time of publishing a Declaration of Independence, to be a favorable opportunity.” Soldiers, allegedly assisted by members of the Sons of Liberty, pulled down the statue from its pedestal and proceeded to symbolically rid the city of the last vestiges of royal authority. In the next day’s General Orders, Washington commended the men’s enthusiasm but made his feelings known. “Though the General doubts not the persons who pulled down and mutilated the Statue in the Broadway last night were actuated by zeal in the public cause,” the orders read, “it has so much the appearance of a riot and want of order in the army, that he disapproves the manner…”

The public who assisted the soldiers’ removal of the statue had a plan for the now mangled mass of lead that once commanded the Bowling Green. The statue of the king who colonists once praised for bestowing “singular Blessings” on the colony would now symbolically bless the patriot cause, by donating its lead to be melted into much-needed musket balls for Washington’s army. General Oliver Wolcott, who owned the Connecticut foundry where the statue was melted down, recorded that 42,088 balls were made from the melted lead.

Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Selected Sources

The Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb, Collected and Edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, Volume I, 1772-1777, New York, 1893.

General Orders, 9 July 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0176.

Fragment of George Washington’s Personal Copy of the “Dunlop Broadside” of the Declaration of Independence, which he ordered read to his assembled troops in New York, July 9, 1776, Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/declara4.html#obj4

Bob Ruppert, “The Statue of George III,” Journal of the American Revolution: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/09/the-statue-of-george-iii/

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