Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Moonlight Patriots

For the fifteenth year, and the ninth under the auspices of Fraunces Tavern Museum and its patrons, the Sons of the Revolution, Mr. James Kaplan led an audience of history buffs through the narrow streets and famous avenues of lower Manhattan early Monday morning to visit significant sites of New York's Colonial and Revolutionary past. If you know the area, you're aware that little actually remains, and even the neighborhood's most knowledgeable cannot find the exact location of one its most notable plots of land. This is the Financial District, where the hour is always now for the world's exchanges of all manner of wealth, day and night, instantaneously from inside modern steel and glass buildings. The two most famous of these towered over millions of people around here until a decade ago. Relatively little here enjoys longevity.

But thank heaven there is Fraunces Tavern and its appendant museum. This structure was the hub of much revolutionary activity in New York City, and even was fired upon by the Royal Navy, which sent a cannonball through the roof. Read more history here. Today it is alive, catering to the wants of mind and body (and, frankly, the soul, for those so receptive). Yes, it is a museum with exhibits and lectures, but it also still satiates the appetites and quenches the thirsts of its visitors. Perhaps it could be lamented that lodging accommodations are no longer for hire as in Samuel Fraunces' day, but on the whole, New York City is lucky to still have this portal to what predates by centuries that which is most commonly dubbed Old New York.

Fraunces Tavern Museum is located at 54 Pearl Street. Click here for a historical timeline.

Mr. Kaplan is an attorney by day, specializing, appropriately for us, in death and taxes, but during the wee hours of the morning every July 4 he serves as docent, conducting a four-hour tour of the places where walked many of the giants of American history. Why at two o'clock in the morning? That is self-evident upon finding the quietude afforded only in the middle of the night. This tour would not be possible at 2 p.m., even on a major holiday. The traffic would kill at least one of us, and the noise of New York would render Mr. Kaplan and his bullhorn inaudible. This is not to say the place is a ghost town; there is plenty of activity at that hour. New York is "The City That Never Sleeps," as Citibank used to say. There are probing passersby and curious cops and cabbies, all pausing at the sight of us, asking what's going on. "A walking tour," I offered at least four times. "Historic sites." It's a shorthand habit of mine, honed during years of deflecting idle questions about Freemasonry without wanting to be rude. "Long story" is the coda that lets me continue on my way.

President Washington
at Federal Hall
on Wall Street.
The tour always sells out in advance. With approximately three dozen explorers on hand -- or, more accurately, on foot -- we gathered just outside City Hall Park. There is one drawback to this scheduling: denied access to important sites. Both Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel open their doors early in the morning, but not early enough for us Moonlight Patriots. The final resting places of Alexander Hamilton and so many others are kept just out of reach behind impressive iron fences. Even the grounds of City Hall itself are off limits now in this security-conscious time, making Frederick MacMonnies' grand 13-foot bronze of martyr Nathan Hale visible only from behind and at some distance. A second issue, concerning not the hour of the event but its timing, is Mr. Kaplan's use of lengthy stops in several places to speak at length on historical contexts. Perhaps anticipating physical limitations of some participants (we appeared to vary in age from 20 to 60), Mr. Kaplan pauses where park benches or other ample seating are available to deliver his bookend monologues on the early years of the Dutch colony and the post-Revolution periods of Tammany, Erie Canal, and more. It is all important information, but it could be e-mailed in advance to participants, freeing time to visit more locations. We missed Federal Hall, where, so help me God, George Washington still stands at the site where he took his first presidential oath of office, and where the John Peter Zenger trial took place in 1735. The New York Stock Exchange is just across Wall Street, so close to where we passed near the close of our tour. But I leave this consideration to our host, who is both highly capable and visibly passionate; his excitement for this avocation is revealed in the gestures of his hands and the occasional tremolo in his voice.

This 13-foot standing bronze of Nathan Hale was sculpted by Frederick MacMonnies. It was dedicated by the Sons of the Revolution of New York State on November 25, 1893, the 110th anniversary of Evacuation Day, the departure of the British from the colonies. The Sons of the Revolution gather here every September 22 to commemorate the anniversary of Hale's death.

Hale of course was the 21-year-old spy captured and hanged by the British. The hanging didn't occur at City Hall, but was nearby in the area of today's Chinatown. One unlucky man who was hanged in City Hall Park was Jacob Leisler. In the wake of the Glorious Revolution, which ended Roman Catholic rule of England and began the Protestant rule that continues today, there was political confusion regarding the governance of the dominions in the Americas. Leisler, a German-born Calvinist, assumed the role of governor of New York on behalf of the new king William III. The political role he played was multifacted and goes neglected by scholars, but it could be argued he was a model revolutionaries of the next century would follow.

City Hall, built between 1803 and 1816, has a French Renaissance exterior. The Tammany Society organized the city's earliest Independence Day celebrations on this land in the 1790s.

The neighborhood where the tour begins is dense with historical and architectural treasure. City Hall, the Surrogate's Court, the Manhattan Municipal Building, and other civic infrastructure occupy land that figures hugely in American creation. It was here on July 6, 1774, where college student Alexander Hamilton stunned a crowd gathered for a Sons of Liberty rally with his speech denouncing British taxation, praising rebellion in Massachusetts, and calling for a boycott of British goods. These actions would "prove the salvation of North America and her liberties" against "fraud, power, and the most odious oppression." It was here on July 9, 1776 where George Washington read the Declaration of Independence to his troops and gathered citizens alike. Around the corner at Bowling Green, the massive equestrian statue of King George III was torn down that day. The tail of the horse is displayed today in Fraunces Tavern Museum.

Obscured by the late night darkness are eight sculptures at the top of the Surrogate's Court building in Manhattan. Depicted in bronze are: Pieter DeVries, Caleb Heathcote, DeWitt Clinton, Phillip Hone, Abram Hewitt, Peter Stuyvesant, Cadwallader Colden, and James Duane. 

Some of the men rendered in bronze atop the Surrogate's Court need no introduction to the readers of American Creation, but perhaps others do.

James Duane (1733-1797), was New York’s first mayor after the Revolutionary War. A native of the city, he was admitted to the bar in 1754, and went on to serve as New York attorney general in 1767 and in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1784. While having initial reservations about American independence, he would eventually support the Declaration of Independence, and Duane helped to draft both the Articles of Confederation and the first New York State Constitution. He was a member of the New York State Senate, 1784-89, and he served as a federal district judge in New York.

Abram Hewitt (1822-1903) was elected mayor of the city in 1866 (Theodore Roosevelt placed third), and is credited with being the father of the subway system, and played an important role in constructing the Brooklyn Bridge.

Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776) was a Royalist who held the New York governor's office several times during the 1760s.

Phillip Hone (1780-1851) was mayor in 1826-27, and is remembered chiefly as a host of great parties for the elites of politics, business, and foreign diplomats as well. His diary is considered a precious resource in understanding New York City political life in the early 19th century.

Also in the neighborhood is Foley Square, the city park named for "Big Tom" Foley, the Democrat Party leader who shepherded Al Smith to prominence in state and national politics. We were concerned with that portion of the park dubbed Thomas Paine Park near the county courthouse. Tour guide Jim Kaplan's affinity for the wordsmith of the Revolution is shown in his passionate and lengthy discussion of Paine and his life -- the good and the bad -- and while there is no consensus among historians on whether to include Paine in the pantheon of Founding Fathers, Kaplan makes it clear that he includes the pamphleteer, both for his own writings and for what Kaplan suggests is an influence on other crucial writers, including Thomas Jefferson.

From "The Crisis," December 23, 1776:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."

There had been a bronze plaque marking Thomas Paine Park, but it is gone now.

Our group regroups at Thomas Paine Park.

And speaking of writers and publishers, this part of the city also once was the nexus of newspaper and other publishing houses; the park is called Printing House Square. What better way to honor that tradition than by erecting a monument to America's patron of printers? And so, there stands bronze Ben Franklin, holding a copy of his newspaper, looking over the neighborhood. The chiseled lettering reads:


1706 - 1790

Printer     Patriot

Presented by Albert de Groot
to the
Press and Printers
of the
City of New York
January 12, 1872

The unveiling ceremony was a major city event. According to the Parks Department:

"This colossal bronze effigy depicts Franklin in 18th-century dress, holding a copy of the Philadelphia Gazette. A second casting may be viewed in the lobby of the High School of Graphic Communication Arts at 439 West 49th Street. On January 17, 1872, the 166th anniversary of Franklin's birth, the statue was formally unveiled in a lavish ceremony in which artist and inventor Samuel F. Morse removed the shroud and newspaper publisher Horace Greeley delivered the keynote address. Charles C. Savage, speaking on behalf of the New York Typographical Society, commented: 'It is appropriate that this statue should be erected in this centre of our trade, in the very midst of our craft-work, instead of in Central Park; for Franklin's life was devoted to practical hard work, rather than to the ornamental and the recreative.' "

Both Morse and Greeley would die that year. Franklin also published the first book in the New World on Freemasonry.

Making a loop through the Financial District, we came to historic John Street Methodist Church, located at 44 John Street.

In 1739, the first sermon by a Methodist preacher in New York City was delivered by the Rev. George Whitefield. In 1760, another preacher, Philip Embury of County Limerick, Ireland, arrived in New York. The first Methodist congregation, consisting of five people, begins meeting in his home in 1766. Two years later, Wesley Chapel on John Street is dedicated with more than 400 people attending the service.

With daybreak at hand, we reached St. Paul's Chapel, where President Washington prayed after being sworn in, and where he worshipped while the seat of federal government remained in New York City. His pew remains inside. And a few doors down is Trinity Church.

Trinity Church is the most historic house of worship in New York City. Unfortunately we arrived too early to gain admission to the church and its grounds.

Major General Richard Montgomery, killed at the Battle of Quebec, was among the first American officers to die in the Revolutionary War. His tomb is located at Trinity, and is now undergoing renovations. It is a national monument, per an act of the Continental Congress in 1776.

Also interred at Trinity, although no one knows exactly where, is General Horatio Gates, the commanding officer at Saratoga, the battle won by the Americans that proved so pivotal to the success of the entire war. It is incredible that a man so important could have been buried in an anonymous grave.

Not inconspicuous at all is the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton.

In addition to his service in war, politics, and government, Alexander Hamilton founded the Bank of New York and the New York Post.

Hamilton's wife is interred several feet away.

Commodore Silas Talbot, the first commander of the USS Constitution.

The final leg of the tour took us to Bowling Green. The Customs House was closed, but the outdoor attractions included the site of the Evacuation Day ceremonies. On November 25, 1783, the last British troops departed the American colonies by exiting New York City. The parade of smart-looking Redcoats was juxtaposed with the ragtag attire of the colonists, including the militiamen who helped defeat His Majesty's troops. George Washington officiated as the Union Jack was lowered, and the Stars and Stripes raised.

At 1 p.m. on November 25, 1783, the formal transition of New York from a British colony to a sovereign state was commemorated with a ceremony at Bowling Green that replaced the British flag with the American flag.

Fraunces Tavern opened for business at 6 a.m. just to accommodate us weary walkers in its Bissell Room. The food is outstanding, with a menu that aims for period authenticity. I opted for the Irish Breakfast: fried eggs, lean sausage, crispy bacon, black pudding, and toast.

The Irish Breakfast at Fraunces Tavern. (That shadow is my hands holding the camera.) A great meal.

My thanks to Fraunces Tavern Museum and to Jim Kaplan for this memorable experience. Obviously it's not for everyone, but those who dare will enjoy and gain from it.


Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Pappas said...

Delightful tour, Mason. I brings back many memories of the time I used to live in lower Manhattan. It was a thrill to pass Hamilton's grave on my way home from work everyday by going down a quiet side street that few knew about.

Fraunces Tavern Museum said...

Thank you for your wonderful recap of Jim's tour! We would love to include portions of your article in our upcoming e-newsletter, The Patriot. Please let me know at your earliest convenience if you approve of such actions.

Warmest Regards
Director of Education
Fraunces Tavern Museum

Magpie Mason said...

Dear Ms. Patton,

Please feel free to go ahead and quote from this blog post as you see fit.

Also, please look for an e-mail from me concerning another matter.


James Kaplan said...

Thanks for your review and coming on the tour.

I will certainly take your comments into account on next year's tour. I have over the years greatly expanded the discussion of Paine, particularly since the 200th anniversary of his death and the rededication of Paine Park on June 8, 2009 (I think the new plaque is there but I was not able to find it this year at 3:30 a.m.) Unfortunately because of the expanded (and I conced lengthy) discussionof Paine, I have had to cut out other things, although your suggestion of stopping at Ben Franklin's statute is an excellent one and something that never occured to me.
From my point of view (although this may not have been as obvious this July 4 as it should be) the centerpiece of the tour is the unmarked grave of
General Horatio Gates, the winning general at the Battle of Saratoga, the most important battle of the American Revolution. Gates is clearly the most important Revolutionary War general buried in New York State, his grave in Trinity Church graveyard is unmarked and "lost", and only we on this tour visit it. To me this is a metaphor for our failure to understand our revolutionary war history (although we don't get to it on the tour until around 5 pm when many are udoubtedly tired).

My real ambition is to make a July 4th visit to General Gates gravesite almost as important a July 4 event in New York City as the Nathan's hot dog eating contest.

In any event thanks for your review and come on the tour next year.