Table of Contents
To the first-generation Americans,
who remind us again and again that
America remains the last best hope of mankind.
ON BOWLING GREEN
ower Manhattan was in turmoil on the blazing hot afternoon of July 9, 1776. To our modern eyes, the city would seem little more than a village of thirty thousand souls, a far cry from the familiar New York of soaring skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty. Instead we would find two- or three-story homes, rickety wooden warehouses lining the waterfront on the East River, and little alleyways shooting off narrow cobblestone streets, the only wide street being the “broad way” that cut through the middle of the island.
The tallest building was Trinity Church (later to be shadowed, for a while, by two far taller structures, and to serve on one September morning as a makeshift hospital and morgue at the outset of another generation's great struggle). On this summer day, just up the street from that church, the defining conflict of the first generation of Americans was unfolding. A revolution was being born, and already some thought it might be dying.
After a long day of digging fortifications, drilling, and gazing with apprehension toward Staten Island, by order of Commander George Washington, a sweaty, bedraggled garrison of colonial troops halted work, picked up their muskets, formed ranks, and paraded to the City Commons, near what is now City Hall.
As they formed up, rank after rank, muskets shouldered, the soldiers understood their lives were imperiledâfor just a few miles away sat an armada of more than 140 ships, theretofore the greatest transoceanic invasion force in history. It had come to force them to submit to an imperial willâand if they refused, to kill them.
The rebellion, which had started a year earlier with “the shot heard round the world” on Lexington Green, was reaching the point of no return. After winning crucial early victories, the colonists were now facing the bayonet-studded reply of the man who claimed to be their king. A 30,000-man army comprising the finest professionally trained troops in the worldâan army with a century-long, nearly unbroken string of victoriesâwas off-loading on Staten Island. The British forces included regiments both honored and feared: the Black Watch, the Coldstream Guards, and the mercenary Hessian heavy infantry and riflemen. They stepped on shore openly and defiantly, believing they had nothing to fear from this rabble-in-arms frantically digging in on the other side of the harbor.
Out on the bay, light sloops proudly flying the British Empire's royal ensign were dashing back and forth. Blockading the entrance to what had once been a thriving port, now cut off from the rest of the world, 44-gun frigates and three-decker, 70-gun ships of the line sat without fear of the assembled throng, which had no navy other than small privateers and converted merchant ships fitted with a few pieces of artillery. If provoked that day, the Brits could easily have advanced up the Hudson River with the morning tide, leveled most of the city, and annihilated the rebels. They held this “mob” in such contempt, however, that they did not even bother to venture a few gunboats up the river to disperse it. There would be plenty of time for the “fox hunt,” as they called it, to finish off these “colonial bumpkins” and return home by Christmas. In fact, many British
sailors expected the rebels to drop their weapons and melt away without firing a shot once the full might of Empire and King had offloaded and stood ready for battle.
Meanwhile the colonial troops, a few thousand strong, stood silent as they formed their ranks. They were men and even women who had come to Manhattan from towns throughout the colonies, fighters from as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as the Carolinas. Most were farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, or laborers, and several hundred were hard-bitten riflemen from the distant frontier, having trekked for weeks to join this fray. Few had tasted the sting of battle other than some veterans of the fighting up around Boston the year before, or those who had faced the French and their Indian allies out on the frontier nearly twenty years prior. Most lacked uniforms, and many were barefoot after wearing out their shoes on the way to New York.
Looking out at the men, an officer stepped forward onto a hastily built dais and raised a thick sheet of paper. His audience stirred, anticipating what it wasâan explanation of why they were here, why the invasion fleet was off-loading just a few miles away, and why they would be called upon to court death in the months to come.
“By orders of his Excellency, General George Washington commanding, I am to read the following!” the officer cried, his voice carrying across the park and echoing up the street of Broad Way. The chattering civilians who had gathered, most in support of the troops, some showing disdain, fell silent. The officer proclaimed, “Authored by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia this first week of July.” He paused as the intense heat pushed beads of sweat down his face, and then continued:
The Declaration of Independence
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent
respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Excited murmurs shot through the crowd. The officer continued reading:
That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.