In this Memorial Day week, I want to talk about July 2, 1776, and the events of that day.
It was on that day that the Continental Congress greatly exaggerated the stakes of the war between America and Great Britain by voting to “dissolve the connection” between the two countries.
What this meant, of course, was that the war was now no longer a fight for rights, but a real revolution. Everyone knew that there was no turning back now. The English, already determined to put down the insurrection, now would be even more merciless, even more inclined to punish the Americans as well as embarrass its army. The leaders of this declaration of independence would pay with their lives most assuredly.
It is well to remember that in July of 1776 England still held almost all the cards.
Yet George Washington, his generals and the regular army itself rejoiced in the declaration. Patriots everywhere in the colonies danced in the streets, even at a time when there were still many loyalists in their midst. Indeed, in New York, as Washington was taking on the task of fortifying the city, loyalists were especially numerous.
Here’s what’s particularly interesting, I think. Only days earlier, on June 29 to be exact, the first sightings of a huge British naval armada appeared on the horizon on the coast. In just hours, 45 ships dropped anchor inside Sandy Hook, and a Pennsylvania rifleman said their masts looked like a forest of trimmed pine trees.
There was every reason to believe that the Brits were priming for an annihilation. The ships Centurion and Chatham had 50 guns each, the Phoenix had 40. The Greyhound — with General Howe on board — had 30 guns. The Asia had 64.
The five ships alone dwarfed the American guns in place on the shore to receive them.
And, of course, there was no such thing as an American naval fleet at all.
Nathaniel Greene reported to Washington that the fleet totaled 120 ships and had 10,000 troops not including some of the Scotch Brigade that joined the fleet on passage. An additional 15,000 to 20,000 troops were expected hourly.
And yet the Americans rejoiced at the declaration of freedom, in the very hour that British might should have sent them scurrying.
Some people, these Americans.
Here’s the story I especially like. As formal readings of the American declaration were read to the people, a great mob stormed down Broadway to Bowling Green in New York and, with ropes and bars, pulled down a great gilded lead statue of King George III on his larger-than-life horse. They hacked off the king’s head and mounted it on a spike outside a tavern.
Later, they melted the lead for bullets, they said, “to assimilate with the brains of our infatuated adversaries.”