This blog was written by Jean Ashton, Senior Director, Resources and Programs, New-York Historical Society.
New York in the summer of 1776 was hot and steamy. Although the city’s merchants and servants, slave and free, continued fulfilling the daily needs of the second largest city in the colonies, much of the remaining population was caught up in the political tensions infusing the city as they witnessed the influx of soldiers from various Northeastern militias. From the Battery, anyone with a good spyglass could spot the masts of British warships anchored off of Staten Island.
The Continental Congress in Philadelphia predicted that New York, with its deep harbor and navigable river would be the next battle site, but George Washington had no idea where, or when, a British attack might take place. Many New Yorkers, loyal to the King and engrossed in the trans-Atlantic trade, found it unthinkable that a rebellion would occur. Sir William Howe, the leader of the British forces, and his brother Admiral Richard Howe, commander of the fleet, viewed themselves as peacemakers, ready to turn the unruly rebels back into dutiful subjects.
The atmosphere in the city grew dark. A plot to poison Washington was discovered, an associate of the Mayor was hanged for printing counterfeit money, a committee to detect conspiracies was formed, and citizens investigated as spies. Staten Island, a normally quiet island with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, was overtaken by more than 30,000 British forces.
In the midst of this, General Washington received a document issued on July 4 by the Congress in Philadelphia. On July 9 he ordered it read aloud to his troops and to New Yorkers at various outdoor spots. This Declaration asserted with eloquence the necessity of a permanent separation from Britain. It was received with cheers. A crowd rushed to Bowling Green to dismantle the statue of King George. Some New Yorkers feared what was to come. “…this fatal day independency declared by the Congress―rivers of blood will flow in consequence of it―no peace for many years” wrote one citizen in his pocket almanac.
The story of what followed the Declaration of Independence will be told in the forthcoming New-York Historical Society exhibitions, The Battle of Brooklyn (September 23, 2016–January 8, 2017) and We Are One: Mapping America’s Road from Revolution to Independence (November 3, 2017–March 11, 2018). The first, which begins with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January 1776, and ends with his The American Crisis and the words “These are the times that try men’s souls”, illustrates the crushing defeat of Washington’s army in Brooklyn in August, the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. Using original documents, objects, and other historical repositories, the exhibition will tell often-forgotten stories and highlight the places in Brooklyn, and Manhattan, where soldiers fought and lives were lost. New-York Historical’s examination of the Revolutionary War continues with We Are One, an exhibition that originated at the Norman Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, that includes rarely seen treasures from the New-York Historical Society’s collections.