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July 9, 2024 9 mins

On this day in 1776, the New York Sons of Liberty tore down a statue of British monarch George III.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that proves there's more than one way to make history.
I'm Gabe Lucier, and today we're talking about a lesser
known milestone in the birth of the United States, the

(00:22):
day when Americans first changed their minds about who deserved
to be memorialized in public view. The day was July ninth,
seventeen seventy six. The Sons of Liberty tore down a
statue of British Monarch George the Third in New York City.

(00:44):
The statue had been installed six years earlier, at a
time when colonial Americans were still supportive of British rule.
The New York Assembly had commissioned the statue as a
kind of thank you to King George, whom they credited,
along with British politics William Pitt the Elder, with the
repeal of the widely hated Stamp Act. The statue itself

(01:07):
was the work of London sculptor Joseph Wilton, and its
pose is thought to have been modeled on a statue
of ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, towering on a marble pedestal.
George the Third was depicted on horseback, clad in a
suit of armor, with his right arms stretched out in
front of him. There are no surviving contemporary images of

(01:29):
the statue, but we know from written accounts that it
stood about fifteen feet high on its plinth and was
made of solid lead gilded with gold. The statue was
dedicated on August sixteenth, seventeen seventy, in Bowling Green, a
small public park at the southernmost tip of Manhattan. There

(01:50):
were very few public sculptures in New York City at
the time, so the installation of the George the Third
statue was treated as a grand affair. At first, most
residents considered it a welcome addition to the landscape, but
as time went on and the colony's relationship with the
British Crown began to sour, many locals started to view
the statue with disdain. The likeness of the domineering monarch

(02:15):
suddenly felt oppressive, as if the statue's watchful gaze was
meant to keep the unruly colonists in line. The statue's
placement furthered that sense of alienation. It had been installed
facing the gates of Fort George, the headquarters of the
British troops stationed in New York prior to the Revolutionary War.

(02:36):
This meant that while the soldiers were greeted by the
face of their sovereign every time they exited the fort,
the locals walking south to Bowling Green saw nothing but
his horse's rear end. This perceived slight drew the ire
of some New Yorkers, and by seventeen seventy three, the
local Assembly had to pass an act to prevent the

(02:58):
defacing of the statue. Historians aren't sure what exactly happened
to spur the new law, but the need for such
legislation points to the growing discontent with British rule among
the colonists. The following year, calls for revolution intensified, and
militias from several different colonies began to gather in New

(03:18):
York in preparation for war. This eventually led British troops
to abandon Fort George, at which point George Washington and
his soldiers moved in next to Bowling Green. Despite several
objections from members of the Continental Army, the nearby statue
of George the Third was allowed to remain in place,

(03:39):
but once the Declaration of Independence was signed on July fourth,
seventeen seventy six, everybody knew that the King's days were numbered.
The literal tipping point came just five days later, on
the evening of July ninth. New York's revolutionary spirit was
in strong form that night, as the newly adopted Declaration

(04:00):
of Independence had just been read aloud that day in
Lower Manhattan for the very first time. The document leveled
twenty six charges against George the Third, accusing him of
violating the rights of his American subjects. General Washington hoped
that hearing the declaration would spur every soldier to quote

(04:21):
act with fidelity and courage now that the revolution had
officially begun, but to many continental troops in attendance, the
best way to do that on that very night was
to rid the city of King George's likeness once and
for all. Just a few hours after the reading, approximately
forty Colonial soldiers and sailors slipped down to the Bowling

(04:44):
Green under cover of darkness. They scaled the statue with ladders,
tied ropes around it, and heaved with all their might.
The ropes snapped on their first attempt, but they held
fast on the second, and the statue tumbled to the
ground and broke to pieces. Witnesses reported that one soldier
beheaded the statue with an axe, while another chipped away

(05:06):
at the gold leaf that coated the statue's surface. The
Pennsylvania Evening Post later recounted the scene the following week,
proudly proclaiming that quote the equestrian statue of King George
the Third, which Tory pride and folly erected in seventeen seventy,
was by the sons of Freedom laid prostrate in the

(05:27):
dirt the just deserts of an ungrateful tyrant. George Washington
was far less approving than that, and although he commended
the soldiers for their zeal, he warned them against doing
anything that gave the appearance of disorder. Washington may have
objected to the act of tearing down the statue, but

(05:48):
he likely had no qualms with what happened to it afterward.
Once all the gold was stripped off the statue, its
various pieces were carted off to Litchfield, Connecticut, where they
were melted down and made into some forty thousand musket
balls to be used in the impending war. The irony
of this turn of events was not lost on New

(06:09):
York Postmaster Ebenezer Hazard, who gleefully pointed out that the
King's troops quote will probably have melted Majesty fired at them.
The bulk of the four thousand pound statue went to
the war effort, but some key pieces went missing on
their way to Connecticut. The head, for example, is thought

(06:29):
to have been sent back to England, though where it
wound up is anyone's guess. It's also believed that some
of the segments were pilfered by loyalists when the cart
driver stopped for the evening at a tavern. Among these
allegedly stolen pieces was the horse's tail, which was later
found in a Connecticut swamp along with several other pieces.

(06:49):
Nearly one hundred years later. Those recovered remnants, including the tail,
were purchased by members of the New York Historical Society,
and they remain in their possession to this day. Other
reminders of the ill fated statue still exist as well,
including several imaginative nineteenth century paintings depicting the monument's destruction,

(07:11):
and a full scale replica of the statue, which is
on display at Philadelphia's Museum of the American Revolution. The
original iron fence that surrounded the statue is still around
as well. It stands in Bowling Green, along with a
plaque commemorating the statue's dramatic fall. Although the statue's removal

(07:32):
was championed as a patriotic act for the next two centuries,
there are some in America today who might disapprove of
the New York Sons of Liberty's actions. They may argue
that a monument or memorial once erected should not be
removed lest history itself be erased. But what happened in
Bowling Green is proof to the contrary. George the Third

(07:54):
is no less remembered today because he doesn't have a
statue in New York City, and America's colonial past and
former ties to Britain have hardly been forgotten either. Tearing
down the statue of a once celebrated oppressor was a
moment of liberation for the people of New York. It
gave them a sense of closure on the abuses of
the past and helped empower them to face an uncertain future.

(08:18):
Americans today deserve a similar catharsis, and while we can
continue to debate the optics of tearing down statues, just
as George Washington once did, we shouldn't discount the symbolic
power of toppling an undeserving idol. At the time of recording,
the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of American Independence and

(08:39):
the fall of King George's statue is fast approaching, and
all these years later, the message that was sent that
night in Bowling Green still reverberates in the hearts of
many Americans today. This is not a nation of kings,
and through the vigilance of the people, it never will be.

(09:01):
I'm gay, blues gay, and hopefully you now know a
little more about history today than you did yesterday. If
you'd like to keep up with the show, you can
follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at TDI HC Show,
and if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free
to send them my way by writing to this Day

(09:22):
at iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks to Kasby Bias for producing
the show, and thanks to you for listening. I'll see
you back here again tomorrow for another day in History.
Class

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