Fireworks, bands, and cookouts are essential ingredients of any Fourth of July celebration. What’s usually not on the menu is toppling statues, ripping down signs, or burning portraits. But in the days following the new nation’s declaration of independence, Americans went on a frenzy of destruction that makes today’s attacks on Confederate and other symbols of white supremacy pale by comparison.
The most dramatic act took place in New York City on July 9, 1776. Early that evening, General George Washington and his troops, along with hundreds of citizens, crowded into what is now City Hall Park to hear a reading of the document that had just arrived from Philadelphia. The enthusiastic throng then headed for Broadway and the two-ton equestrian statue of King George III on Bowling Green.
This was the same route protestors took in 1765 when New Yorkers demonstrated against the Stamp Act taxing a host of goods. The following year, the colony’s assembly commissioned the statue in recognition of the king’s support in repealing the despised legislation. Modeled on the classical equestrian sculpture of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, it arrived from London in 1770 and was erected with great pomp. When John Adams paid his first visit to New York in 1774, he wrote to his wife Abigail that the king’s statue was “very large, of solid lead, gilded with gold, standing on a pedestal of marble very high.”
Two years later, fervent New Yorkers, with the help of Washington’s soldiers, quickly pulled it from its...