The Freedom New York City Celebrates on the Fourth of July Was Hard-Won

The first Fourth of July, New Yorkers spent the day cutting down trees and fleeing for their lives. Five days before, the largest naval flotilla anyone had seen began to sail into New York Harbor – some 100 British warships, carrying 9,000 troops.

“I could not believe my eyes,” recalled a Continental Army private stationed in Brooklyn. “I thought all London was afloat.” A terrible battle was about to begin. The British had decided that taking New York was the key to crushing the nascent rebellion. This was no surprise, for not only was the city in a critical geographic location, but New Yorkers had never much liked to bend the knee to anyone.

Back when New York was still New Amsterdam, the villagers of Flushinghad petitioned the colony’s ferocious governor, Petrus Stuyvesant, for religious freedom. The Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 made the outrageous claim that “The law of love, peace, and liberty” extended to “Jews, Turks and Egyptians.” And the 1735 libel trial of publisher John Peter Zenger established a sacred tenet of the free press – it wasn’t libel if it was true.

Yearnings for freedom have repeatedly brought conflict to New York. We were loathed by the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11; centuries before that, in the summer of 1776, we were hated by the British.

Their warships made first for Staten Island, where they anchored with “colors flying, guns saluting and the soldiers…continually shouting.” The local militia surrendered without firing a shot. “I feel for you and my New York friends,” an Englishman had written an American acquaintance, “for I expect your city will be laid in ashes.”

Most New Yorkers weren’t waiting to find out. The city had already been a ghost town for months, with only about one-fifth of its 25,000 citizens sticking around. The state’s ruling Provincial Congress had fled to White Plains. Its hasty retreat left New York’s delegation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with no instructions on how to vote on the Declaration of Independence. New York would thus be the only one of the 13 colonies not to sign it – until July 9, anyway.

News of the Declaration was read out to Washington’s troops that same evening, setting off a parade to the Bowling Green, where the crowd pulled down a statue of George III, the body of which was turned into 4,000 pounds of lead musket balls.

But all that lead – and the trees they turned into barricades – did them little good. Over the next few months, the Americans were routed throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, chased all the way through New Jersey and across the Delaware River.

The debacle was a prelude to the British occupation of New York that would continue to the end of the war. About one-third of the city burned to the ground, and more Americans died in the holds of the awful British prison ships in Wallabout Bay – some 11,500 men – than were killed in all the battles of the Revolution combined.

At the same time, tens of thousands of Americans still loyal to the king flocked to New York for safety. Among them were local slaves who signed up to fight against the rebels in exchange for freedom. They fought well, and when the British finally departed, they went with them, refusing to trust their destinies to the unresolved issue of slavery, which rocked New York nearly 100 Julys later.

The Civil War did not go down so well with the city’s large population of Irish Catholic immigrants, who were disproportionately represented in the casualty lists that began to fill the newspapers. On July 13, 1863, attempts to implement the nation’s first draft – which the rich could buy their way out of for $300, as much as two years’ wages for a workingman – set off a five-day orgy of racist violence that became known as the “Draft Riots,” to this day the country’s bloodiest civic disturbance.

Blacks were lynched in the streets, and the city was saved from the mob only by the heroic efforts of its wildly outnumbered police force – and several regiments of the Army of the Potomac. The riots imperiled the Union cause more than any lost battle – but after they were all over, black New Yorkers were able to form their own regiments for the first time and march off to take the fight back to the South.

So it would continue, with struggles over the rights of unions, immigrants, women and homosexuals – up to the recent fights over same-sex marriage and the downtown Islamic center. No other patch of ground in Americahas been so fiercely contested. In no other place have we fought so often over just who is to be an American, and what that means.

These fights have often been ugly, and sometimes violent. Freedom is a messy business, and nowhere has it been messier than here in New York. In the end, though, we have shaped ourselves into what the old WNYC station identification used to say we were: “New York City, where eight million people live together in peace and harmony, and enjoy the benefits of democracy.” May it always be so.