Fireworks, ice-cold watermelon, and cookouts provided the makings of a perfect July 4 holiday for many Americans this last weekend, but readers of documents on Founders Online can learn that some early patriots celebrated independence in a much more rambunctious way. In fact most Americans did not learn about the Second Continental Congress’ actions until many days later. This included one very important American. Stationed in New York City, Continental Army General George Washington did not receive a copy of the Declaration of Independence until July 9. The receipt of this news could not have come at a better time. For several weeks British General William Howe had besieged the city’s harbors and built a massive fleet in order to invade Manhattan. His presence caused conflict between the early patriots and those remaining loyal to the British crown. On 17 April 1776, Washington wrote to the New York Committee of Safety for their assistance in reigning in locals who provided the British Navy with supplies and intelligence information:
“It would Gentlemen, be taking up too much of your time to use further Arguments in proof of the necessity of putting an immediate and total Stop to all future Correspondence with the Enemy.”
Despite Washington’s request, by early July the British Navy still received supplies from the mainland while Continental Army soldiers had few munitions and had grown sickly and hungry. Upon receipt of the Declaration on 9 July, Washington ordered the document read to the soldiers from the steps of New York’s City Hall.
“The Honorable the Continental Congress, impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the Connection which subsisted between this Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of North America, free and independent STATES: The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at six OClock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds & reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice.
The General hopes this important Event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms: And that he is now in the service of a State, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest Honors of a free Country.”
According to General Samuel Blachley Webb’s Correspondence and Journals, the reading of the document was “received by three Huzzas from the Troops.” Later that evening, though, the crowd got much more rowdy, even riotous, and pulled down a lead statue of King George III in Lower Manhattan’s Bowling Green park. The patriots later melted the statue down to make 42,000 musket munitions for the Continental Army, but Washington was less than impressed with the crowd’s behavior and mildly reprimanded them, as noted in his General Orders for 10 July 1776:
“’Tho 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; yet it has so much the appearance of riot and want of order, in the Army, that he disapproves the manner, and directs that in future these things shall be avoided by the Soldiery, and left to be executed by proper authority.”
Founders Online provides insight not only to the thoughts and actions of the Founders themselves but also gives readers a feel for the pulse of less well-known patriots in the early American republic. Try searching terms like “riot,” “mob,” and “effigy” for some similar stories.