During the 1970s, the most important July 4th event in New York City became the previously established Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. The highly publicized event proved to be a huge success, but lacked historical context or political meaning.
During the Bicentennial year of 1976 one of the last large July 4th events occurred when the South Street Seaport Museum arranged for more than a dozen tall sailing ships to come to New York Harbor as part of their annual Operations Sails program. Other than that event there was no large July 4th celebrations in Manhattan from the early 1960s until the year 2000.
There was however, an annual 50-round cannon salute on the mornings of July 4th by the New York Veteran Corps of Artillery (VCA), the oldest military unit in New York State. For more than a hundred years the VCA cannon salute occurred near Castle Clinton in Battery Park. Prior to each of the rounds of the cannon, a member of the Corps in military uniform read the date of admission of each state to the union.
Another limited event on July 4th in the 1980s was an all-night walking historical tour of Lower Manhattan organized by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (known as the 92nd Street Y). That tour would help lead to the organization of modern July 4th celebrations in the City.
The Midnight Tour
The tour began around City Hall Park at 2 am and ended around 6 am at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial on Water Street. This all-night July 4 tour was led at various times by Joyce Mendelsohn, a New York City high school history teacher, architect and historian Justin Ferate, and later by Warren Shaw, a writer, musician and historian who worked during the day as a lawyer in the contracts division of the New York City Law Department. These were some of the most experienced walking tour historians in the city and the tours were considered successful in that they attracted 60 and 100 participants. In 1996, I joined Shaw as a guest lecturer and later co-leader.
When the 92nd Street Y decided to discontinue its walking tours in 2001 after 9/11 I approached the Fraunces Tavern Museum in Lower Manhattan to see if that institution would sponsor the tour. The Museum, which is run by the Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York is today one of the city’s leading museum’s dedicated to promoting Lower Manhattan’s Revolutionary War history.
Notwithstanding some significant skepticism as to whether anyone would show up at 2 am on July 4th for a tour about New York City in the
American Revolution, the then museum staff accepted the challenge. With the help of some free publicity in local publications such as River to River, the New York Post‘s list of July 4th events and ultimately The New York Times‘ “Going Out” guide the tour in 2002 drew about 40 people at 2 am at the statue of Nathan Hale in City Hall Park.
The tour continued annually for the next 15 years and began to attain a bit of a cult following among hardcore history buffs, a number of whom would make a point of attending in successive years. It generally specialized in discussing important but unknown places and events.
For example it would spend about 20 minutes in Thomas Paine Park (near Foley Square) where some lesser known events from Paine’s life were described. The tour would also discuss various monuments, such as the tomb of Richard Montgomery in front of St.Paul’s Chapel. Montgomery was an Irish soldier in the British Army who became a major general in the Continental Army and led the unsuccessful 1775 invasion of Quebec.
Another important tour stop was Bowling Green where John Van Ardale first raised the American flag over the city of New York when the British evacuated on November 25, 1783 (Evacuation Day). It would end at 6 am at the Fraunces Tavern Museum where George Washington’s famous 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island was read and discussed. In the letter Washington said the new United States would give to “bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.”
An important document in the establishment of religious freedom in the United States, it would later would form the basis for the annual ceremony of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association commemorating the construction of the first synagogue in the United States a block away on South William Street. There, for more than ten years, I would decry the fact that one of the most important Revolutionary War generals buried in New York State lay unheralded in an unmarked grave.
One morning, Ann Malonee, the vicar of Trinity Church Parish, made an unsolicited appearance at the gates of Trinity Churchyard with an interest in marking Gates’ grave. Later, Charlotte van Horne Squarcy, a tour participant, then a member of the New York City Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) interested then New York State Regent Denise van Buren in marking Gates’ grave.
Van Buren, who subsequently became the National General of the DAR, made marking General Gates grave a project of her own and on October 21, 2012, there was a ceremony attended by more than 150 DAR members and others in which a marker was placed at the front of the churchyard recognizing General Gates and the Battles of Saratoga. Out of this ceremony grew the Lower Manhattan Historical Association’s annual Saratoga-Yorktown event honoring General Gates, Alexander Hamilton and Marinus Willett, all of whom are buried at Trinity Churchyard.
In 2008, as the tour became somewhat better known, it was covered in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Early American History” and that year drew 150 participants. This success proved unwieldy for a midnight walking tour and the attendance was limited to 60. Once the tour ended at 6 am however, there were in fact no other patriotic July 4th in Manhattan, the city’s most historic area.
A meeting was called in the spring of 2014 to see if there could be a broader based coalition in Lower Manhattan to create a more proper celebration of July 4th. Representatives of a number of cultural organizations were invited and attendance at the meeting included Art Piccolo of the Bowling Green Association, Abby Suckle of Culture Now, Ambrose Richardson of the Sons of the Revolution, educational consultant and historian Peter Feinman, and representatives of the Museum of American Finance, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the National Park Service and the New York City Parks Department.
After a bit of a false start, the effort was continued among the most interested participants, and the Lower Manhattan Historical Association (LMHA) was organized. Originally the LMHA was envisioned as an umbrella organization for groups undertaking historical activities promoting Lower Manhattan, but later it became clear that it could more effectively function as an organization that sponsored and promoted events that highlighted relatively unknown aspects of Lower Manhattan history.
The 2015 Hermione Visit
In 2015, after 15 years of planning, French historical groups with government assistance had raised enough funds (approximately $28 million) to create a replica of the Marquis de Lafayette’s ship Hermione, which had brought news in 1780 to George Washington of the French support that would prove critical to the American Revolution’s success. It was proposed that the Hermione replica sail up the eastern seaboard of the United States as a goodwill and educational effort from France to United States.
Constructed at the Rochefort ship yard in la Rochelle, France where the original Hermione had been built, the voyage across the Atlantic was staffed by young french volunteers. The ship’s arrival promised to be one of the great Lower Manhattan public history events of our time. The backers of Hermione planned that the ship would dock in New York City for the July 4th weekend where it hoped to have a rousing welcome.
While other eastern port cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia enthusiastically welcomed the ship with the mayor and governors holding receptions at its arrival, the initial response in New York was tepid and the organizers had great difficulty in even getting a meeting with the mayor or his representatives to discuss the visit. Furthermore, the American committee organizing the Hermione visit was told that the ship could only dock on the less than prime location of an obscure pier in Brooklyn.
In addressing a meeting of Manhattan Community Board No.1 representatives of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association (LMHA) that it was a disgrace that this important historical project on which the French had spent so much time and money should be relegated to a pier in Brooklyn, when it was a logical complement to the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. Participants in the meeting stood up to express their outrage and after significant wrangling the city’s administration was convinced to clear their bureaucratic hurdles and issue the necessary permits for the Hermione to dock in Manhattan.
On July 1, 2015, the Hermione docked at South Street Seaport’s Pier 15 to considerable fanfare and a robust welcoming ceremony attended by Henry Kissinger, although ignored by the Mayor, Governor or nearly all senior state and city officials.
The Lower Manhattan Historical Association organized, in part to honor Hermione and its crew, the first July 4th parade in Lower Manhattan since 1976. The parade began at pier 15 where Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke about the importance of historical projects and South Street Seaport Museum
President Jonathan Boulware talked about plans to revive the museum to its glory with a series 0f visiting sailing ships.
Representatives of the New York Veteran Corps of Artillery, the Sons of the Revolution Color Guard, the Sons of the American Revolution and other organizations paraded seven blocks across Wall Street to Trinity Church on Broadway. From there the marchers went down to Bowling Green (now Evacuation Day Plaza) where final ceremonial remarks were made. In closing, the French and American flags were raised at the Bowling Green Flagpoles, and the crowd sang both the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise.”
With the success of the 2015 parade, it became much easier to obtain funding for a parade in 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. A decision was made for the parade’s theme to highlight the linkage between the American and Irish independence movements. The Grand Marshal that year was Irish scholar Mary Murphy, and the effort was strongly supported by Ann McGillicudy, the Deputy Irish consul in New York who spoke at the ceremony. Hilary Beirne of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick gave a stirring speech about the Irish patriot and Civil War General Francis Meagher and the Irish National Anthem “Amhrán na bhFiann” (“The Soldier’s Song”) was song by the Irish Consul Mary Deary, along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
2017 marked the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the construction of the Erie Canal, for which the first spade of earth was turned in a ceremony on July 4, 1817 at Rome, New York. Given that the Erie Canal was one of the most important projects New York City history and had helped make the city an economic powerhouse, the LMHA organizers of the parade made it that year’s theme. Historical reenactor Kyle Jenks delivered Dewitt Clinton’s 1815 Memorial to the New York State Legislature advocating the construction of the canal from the steps of Federal Hall. The Erie Canal Anniversary did not resonate with New York City residents in the way organizers had hoped, many considering it an an upstate project
The following year, the theme was the contribution of the Chinese-Americans in the Second World War (and subsequent conflicts). It was strongly supported by more than 60 marchers from the Ralph Kimlau American Legion Post 1239 in Chinatown, probably the largest veterans contingent in any of the new era July Fourth parades. City Councilwoman Margaret Chin was the Grand Marshal. The route of that year’s parade ran from Castle Clinton in Battery Park (a former immigrants station), across to the U. S. Custom House in Bowling Green, up Broad Street, across Wall Street and on to the South Street Seaport.
COVID required a virtual parade in 2020, but in 2021 it was decided that the revitalized parade should have the same route as the one taken in 2019. The route was designed by the senior walking tour guides at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in order to cover the maximum number of important historical landmarks in Lower Manhattan in the shortest amount of time. It was, in a sense, intended to recreate the Fraunces Tavern Museum’s all night July 4th walking tours for a
It also more explicitly incorporated the Veteran Corps of Artillery (VCA) cannon firing at Battery Park and a flag raising at Castle Clinton. This combined cannon firing and parade in 2022 increased attendance. A conscientious effort was made to ask all the city’s patriotic organizations, including various chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, various American Legion Posts, as well as various community and civic groups such as the Bowling Green Association, the Chinatown Partnership and the Downtown Alliance.
Some 2,000 people marched and parade organizers were hopeful that it would finally receive media attention on par with the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest at Coney Island. The next day however, Joey Chestnut’s hot dog eating once again surpassed marking American independence. Chestnut was on the cover of New York Daily News and the parade was hardly mentioned by any of the New York media.
The Upcoming 2023 Parade
This year the Lower Manhattan Historical Association is redoubling its efforts in hopes for an even bigger and better parade (including new afternoon lectures at Fraunces Tavern). The Grand Marshal will be Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and playwright Lin Manuel Miranda has been invited to be a Co-Grand Marshal. Among the parade’s participants will be the 34-person Excelsior Band which will march in the parade and perform briefly at the South Street Seaport.
The parade will begin at 10:30 am with the flag raising at Castle Clinton and cannon firing at the Battery and then proceed from Battery Park to the U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green; over Broad Street to Fraunces Tavern; up Broad Street to the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street; and then up Wall Street to the end at South Street Seaport.
At 2 pm at Fraunces Tavern there will be an additional program entitled “It Happened Here” which will include a talk by Fraunces Tavern Executive Director Scott Dwyer about the Tavern’s history, a talk about the Birch Trials; a talk by the Gotham Center on the New York City Revolutionary Trail; and a program moderated by Ambrose Richardson in which members of the patriotic societies will talk about their forbears. The entire program is expected to last about two hours.
With these programs and this parade it appears that July 4th celebrations in New York City have come full circle from the four-hour Tammany Society extravaganzas of more than 100 years ago. Those of us who have worked so many years on this project couldn’t be prouder.