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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Plymouth Rock

Today, December 21, marks the date the Pilgrims left the Mayflower and landed in the town they'd call Plymouth (or "Plimoth"). According to legend, the first boulder they encountered was what we now call Plymouth Rock, which sits on the shore of Plymouth Harbor inside a classical pavilion.

Plymouth Rock today
The story of the Pilgrims is extremely relevant to the history of New York City, because Manhattan was their intended destination.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World, which started out from the Dutch city of Leiden where they’d lived in exile, worried the fur traders. In the common Thanksgiving story, it’s usually left out that the Pilgrims weren’t en route to Massachusetts at all (which lay outside English territory) but instead had been granted the island at the northern limit of the Virginia colony: Manhattan. (Virginia’s claim to Manhattan was long-standing. When John Smith wrote to Henry Hudson about a Northwest Passage, it was because the river he was describing was part of Virginia.) 
After a rocky start, where the Pilgrims were forced to abandon one of their two ships—perhaps because of sabotage by Dutch merchants—they continued on to the New World on the Mayflower, disembarking in Plymouth after a half-hearted attempt to sail further south. When it became clear that the English settlers were not going to move to Manhattan, Dutch traders hurriedly began staking a firmer claim to their territory.


By 1820 — the 200th anniversary of their arrival —  the Pilgrims had long been an important part of the cultural DNA of New England, a section of the country that saw itself as separate from (and inherently better than) both the south and the Mid Atlantic states. As an anonymous contributor to the second volume of the New England Quarterly wrote in 1802: “If the inhabitants of New-England are superior to the people of other countries, their superiority is to be attributed to their moral habits.”

In the 1740s, a 94-year-old man named Thomas Faunce had first identified Plymouth Rock as the spot where the Pilgrims had come ashore; on the eve of the Revolution, the boulder was dragged by a team of twenty oxen to Plymouth’s town square to be placed at the foot of a liberty pole. During the move the rock broke in two — a sign of America’s impending war with Britain, some thought — which only served to endow it with greater meaning.

At the December 1776 Pilgrim anniversary, Sylvanus Conant, a descendant of Plymouth resident Roger Conant (who’d gone on to found the town of Salem), preached a sermon in “grateful memory of the first landing of our worthy ancestors” where he laid out the case for the Pilgrims as God’s chosen people. Conant compared the Pilgrims to the Israelites exiled to the wilderness, a “little persecuted flock,” and noted that despite their many afflictions, God “set their feet upon a rock, and established them so firmly that none of the powers or machinations formed against them have been able to pluck them up; but the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.”

Conant also compared the persecution of the Pilgrims to the impending war. In the same way the Mayflower’s passengers had fled oppression under King James I, so, too, would the American Revolution throw off the shackles of King George III. Though Conant wasn’t explicit, his meaning was clear: the Pilgrims had come to America as a place of exile; their descendants — by overthrowing the British monarchy of Old England and completing the journey — would truly make New England the Promised Land.

On Forefathers' Day — December 22, 1820 — John Quincy Adams gave a speech in Plymouth where he outlined the Pilgrims as America's true founders. After first dismissing older settlements like the 1607 colony in Jamestown, Virginia (“avarice and ambition had tuned their souls to that pitch of exaltation. Selfish passions were the parents of their heroism”), Adams noted that it was “reserved for the first settlers of New England...to trample down obstructions equally formidable, to dispel dangers equally terrific, under the single inspiration of conscience.” Indeed, most remarkable to Adams were not the religious struggles of these Pilgrims — a term he helped popularize with this speech — but their civic-mindedness. In drawing up and signing the Mayflower Compact while at anchor off the coast of the Massachusetts, Adams argued that the Pilgrims created
the only instance in human history of [an] original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government. Here was a unanimous and personal assent, by all the individuals of the community, to the association by which they became a nation.
Of course, by the end of the 19th century, the story of the Pilgrims would have grown far beyond the confines of New England and become an integral part of the new Thanksgiving Holiday.

Happy Forefathers' (and Foremothers') Day!

 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Death of George Washington


"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him.... [V]ice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. ... Such was the man for whom our nation mourns." -- Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee

On December 14, 1799, former president George Washington breathed his last at Mount Vernon. Washington was not the first Founding Father to pass away -- Benjamin Franklin had died nine years earlier -- but he was already widely acknowledged as the "Father" of his country and quickly transformed into a symbol of America. Dozens of cities, towns, parks, lakes, and boulevards are named from him across the country, and he is memorialized with countless statues and other monuments.



One of the most famous of these statues, by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, was completed during Washington's lifetime. Houdon was hired by the Virginia General Assembly in 1784 and traveled from France to Mount Vernon in the summer of 1785. He stayed at Mount Vernon that fall, measuring Washington limbs and taking a life mask (below) from which he could work once he was back in France. The statue was completed around 1792 and installed in 1796 in the rotunda of the Virginia state capitol.


Starting in the 1850s numerous casts of the Houdon statue were made, including a bronze copy that now stands in the rotunda of New York's City Hall. Prior to that (from 1883 to 1907), the work stood in Riverside Park between 88th and 89th Street near the Soldiers and Sailors monument. According to Peter Salwen's Upper West Side Story, the statue had been unearthed in the arsenal in Central Park by parks commissioner Egbert Viele. According to a contemporary guide to the city, "children of the public schools of the city" raised the funds to have the statue erected in the park, very near Viele's home. By 1907, it had been moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a 1908 edition of the New-York Tribune, because the statue was only life size and not "heroic size, as statues have to be to look well out of doors," it was taken to the Met to be put on display. When, precisely, it then migrated to City Hall is unclear, though it seems to be sometime in the 1960s.

Of course, New York has many other Washington monuments, including Henry Kirke Brown's equestrian statue in Union Square, JQA Ward's standing figure on the steps of Federal Hall National Memorial, and the Washington Square Arch, erected to honor the centennial of Washington's inauguration.

 



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