Bowling Green at the bottom end of Broadway in New York is an oasis within the frenetic energy of the city’s financial district. It is also a spot that resonates with New York’s past. The small park claims its beginnings as the meeting-place for Native American councils. In the seventeenth-century years of New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlers used it for military drills and for the sale of cattle. Under British rule, it became a public park in 1733, famously leased out for a single peppercorn a year in return for which the spot was beautified with trees, a fence and turf. Perhaps Bowling Green’s most celebrated memories, however, are those associated with the years of the American Revolution and the early Republic. This space is positively redolent with them, and public awareness has been amplified thanks to the dogged efforts of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society (LMHS) and other civic organizations that–as recently as November 2016 – persuaded the City to rename the northern end of Bowling Green “Evacuation Day Plaza.” This is very apt, for it honors the spot where the Stars and Stripes was hoisted aloft on November 25. 1783, at the end of the American War of Independence, on the day that the British occupying forces left New York for good and the Continental troops under General George Washington marched in.
Evacuation Day is certainly the most iconic of revolutionary moments associated with Bowling Green, because of what famously happened there on that day. As the redcoats boarded ships that would sail them away from New York, the blue-and-buff Continental soldiers reached Bowling Green, where they found the British flag still fluttering from a tall pole. Since Washington had ordered that the Stars and Stripes be flown above the city before he would ride in, the banner of the old colonial rulers had to be struck down. Yet the British soldiers had severed the lanyards and greased the pole, making it impossible for the Americans to haul down the British colours. Eventually, one determined patriot with a head for heights used a ladder and metal cleats to scale all the way to the top and cut down the British banner, allowing the Stars and Stripes to be hoisted to a salute of musketry. For years afterwards, New Yorkers celebrated Evacuation Day as a holiday. Now, after decades of neglect, a campaign is now underway to celebrate it once again. Bowling Green would be a central location for the commemorations.
This is at it should be. Yet in the years of the American Revolution and the early Republic, this beautiful spot on Lower Manhattan also witnessed events that still speak directly to one of the questions that is central to American political traditions, namely: what is it to be an American?
This question has aroused a fair deal of controversy ever since the Revolution. One of revolutionary New York’s earliest answers to it was dramatically symbolic. On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud to George Washington’s Continental troops mustered on the Common (today’s City Hall Park), after which a crowd of soldiers and New York patriots surged down Broadway to Bowling Green. There, they toppled the equestrian statue of King George III (originally erected in 1770), sending the lead to Connecticut for melting into musket balls. The head–severed from the leaden body in a symbolic act of regicide–was found later with its laurel wreath clipped off and the nose hacked away. The park itself did not escape this act of revolutionary iconoclasm: the iron fence around the green that stands today still bears the marks where the crowns that surmounted its bars were hewn off. The destruction of the statue of George III reinforced in a strongly visual way the rupture between Americans and the British crown. Isaac Bangs, a Massachusetts lieutenant serving in Washington’s army gleefully recorded the event in his diary, adding that he hoped that the lead from King George would make “impressions in the Bodies in some of his red Coated & Torie Subjects.” The implication was clear: one could no longer owe fealty to the British monarch and be a good American. It was a lesson reinforced in law by New York’s provincial congress, which imposed the death penalty on anyone who waged war against the state “or be adherent to the King of Great Britain.”
During the war, such draconian measures against what the Patriots defined as treason were explicable, but arguably the greater challenge came with the peace. While some 60,000 “Tories,” or Loyalists, fled the country at war’s end in 1783, there were still thousands who remained. The question for the victorious revolutionaries was how to treat them. The more radical among them did not doubt that the answer was exclusion: in May 1784, a public meeting demanded that every “Tory” be banished from New York. The state’s legislature never went that far, but former Loyalists were barred from public office, could be denied the vote; were faced with a super-tax and their property confiscated and sold. So the destruction of George III’s statue may have been an act of anger and defiance by patriots on July 9, 1776, but, as a symbolic moment, it also asked the questions as to who was or was not an American, and additionally who was or was not a good American citizen.
The post-war punitive tide against former Loyalists soon turned, in part thanks to the efforts of moderates such as Alexander Hamilton, who castigated the persecutors of Tories in his “Letters from Phocion.” The disagreements over what to do with former Loyalists aggravated another feature of American political life: partisan divisions. And these, too, found expression in an event on Bowling Green, this time in response to another Revolution–in France.
As the political landscape took shape in the post-revolutionary years, Democratic-Republicans like Thomas Jefferson suspected that their Federalist opponents, among them Hamilton, had sinister, ulterior motives in their attempts to blunt the assault against the Loyalists and to establish cordial relations with America’s former British rulers. Underlying the Anglophilia of the Federalists, they suspected, was a desire to reintroduce some of the features of the old British political system, perhaps even a monarchy.
In the 1790s, Bowling Green became once more the symbolic site of the political controversy over the future direction of the young American Republic and what it meant to be an American. The backdrop was the challenge of the French Revolution of 1789. The French monarchy had helped the Americans win their independence. The Democratic-Republicans, as fervent supporters of revolutionary France, wanted the United States to honor this old alliance, particularly when the French went to war with the old British enemy early in 1793. On the other hand, the violence in France chilled and alarmed the Federalists who feared that the example would stir unrest at home. They sought to steer America towards a much closer understanding with Britain.
This controversy erupted when the French frigate Embuscade hove into New York harbor in June 1793, its resplendent tricolore flag floated from the stern. Enthusiastic Democratic-Republicans celebrated by marching to Bowling Green, shoulder-to-shoulder with French sailors, armed with picks and shovels. They prised up what remained of the plinth that had once borne the statue of George III and shattered the pieces of masonry, a cathartic act that connected the struggles of the new French Republic with the American Revolution. As the Democratic Society in New York would put it, “he who is an enemy to the French Revolution cannot be a firm republican.” Federalists strongly disagreed: Hamilton had written to President Washington in May 1793 that while the American Revolution had found its legality in writing, in petitions and the law, the bloodshed had poisoned the French version. Federalists soon drew the conclusion that one could not be a fervent supporter of the French Revolution and be a loyal American citizen. It was a notion that would find its legal expression in the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which made in harder for immigrants to secure U.S. citizenship, empowered the executive to deport ‘aliens’ suspected of subversion and imposed jail sentences on anyone convicted of publishing material that sullied the reputation of the government.
The issues raised by the destruction of George III’s statue on Bowling Green in 1776 and of the plinth in 1793 would come boiling to surface of American politics repeatedly over the decades and centuries that followed. Who was an American, and who was not; who was a good, patriotic citizen, and who was not; and conversely who and what kind of behavior was “‘un-American” would re-emerge periodically, as in the controversies over ‘nativism’ in the nineteenth century and McCarthyism in the twentieth. Moreover, the divisions that the iconoclasm at Bowling Green exposed all those years ago go the heart of the problems that still vex democracies around the world today: where is the boundary between legitimate dissent and subversion? When, if ever, is it permissible for a democratic state or government to pursue those who do not conform to its values? Where does the balance between national security and individual freedom lie? That we still ask these questions means that the thud made by the leaden statue of King George as it fell onto the grass of Bowling Green on that July day in 1776 still resonates among us today.
Rebel Cities by Mike Rapport published in Hardback by Little, Brown is available now.