In 1776 following a reading of the freshly written Declaration of Independence, a group of New Yorkers descended on Bowling Green in lower Manhattan and physically pulled down a statue of King George III. Two hundred and forty two years later, this moment would be resurrected as a meme in the debate concerning the removal of statues of confederate figures across America. Directly challenging those who would keep the statues in place for the sake of preserving history, it reads: "After hearing a reading of the newly adopted Declaration of Independence, New Yorkers "Destroy History" by toppling a statue of King George III. And that's why no one knows who won the American Revolution.” Americans are being asked to confront their historical legacy and make a decision about the cultural symbols they want in public spaces. On its surface, the meme demonstrates the shallow connections these statues have with our recorded history—after all, history cannot be undone. But the meme also highlights the significance of cultural mythologies and symbology which become clearer with a closer understanding of the statue and it's rippling impact.
Theirs was both an act of defiance and an act of solidarity; they were looking forward to the future that would be crafted on American soil. Their actions were certainly criticized but they felt strongly that they were right as the rising popular sentiment was King George III did not represent the values and culture of the colonial powers. As Americans call for the removal of statues of confederate figures across the country, similar debates are playing out across all forums. The increased attention awarded to these monuments comes in the wake of an appalling white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (ironically, to protest the removal of a commemoration of Robert E. Lee) that left left one counter-protestor dead. Some cities, like Baltimore, removed several statues overnight citing safety, and called upon other cities to follow suit. Supporters of these memorials argue these statues and namesakes are a vital part of American history and question where we stop once we start to pin crimes on these established heroes. Those calling for their removal point out the men depicted in these effigies represent a dark chapter of American history that isn’t reflective of the current cultural state of the nation, and glorifies ideologies that are offensive to and alienate a large portion of the population.
The statue of King George III was dedicated on April 26th, 1770 at Bowling Green in New York City. It had been erected not out of true reverence for the sovereign, but as a means of accomplishing another goal: dedicating a statue to William Pitt. Pitt had been instrumental in repealing the Stamp Act in 1766. He was regarded as a hero and friend to the colonists. However, it seemed improper to erect a statue of the King’s advisor where no statue of the king existed, so the General Assembly commissioned both statues. George III would stand in Bowling Green and Pitt was placed at the intersection of William Street and Wall Street.
That said, the statue of George III was modeled after Marcus Aurelius as depicted on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Crafted by English sculptor Joseph Wilton, who was already working on statues of both men, it mimicked the gestures and clothing of the original ancient piece. Marcus Aurelius was known as the Philosopher Emperor, which made him an ideal model for George III, the latter being a constitutional monarch. The power of symbology is such that Wilton and his contemporaries felt that by using Marcus Aurelius as a model, it would encourage others to view George III as possessing the qualities assigned to the ancient leader. (It was a selfie before such a thing became a thing: the idea was to portray to individual in the best possible light and emphasize the traits that were suitable for public consumption.)
The statue of King George III stood for six years. And then the Declaration of Independence was read to a crowd of American troops and colonists; the document formally severed the colonies from Great Britain and clearly cast George III as the "Royal Brute of Great Britain” with twenty-six indictments against him. Passions inflamed, the group marched to Bowling Green where ropes were used to bring the statue down. A Philadelphia paper reporting on the incident said that the leaden statue would be melted down to create bullets for the coming war—42,088 bullets, to be exact.
But not all of the statue would make it to the forge. His head was removed—the King was thus symbolically beheaded—and it was intended to be displayed above Fort Washington on a spike, as criminals were displayed. However, through some murky maneuverings—it’s said that the head was misplaced at a tavern—Loyalists were able to regain the head and sent it back to England. Other pieces that the Loyalists were able to obtain were hidden and have periodically emerged. For example, the tail of the horse that the King had been seated upon is housed in the New York Historical Society.
Why did the colonists feel they were right in removing the statue of King George III? Was it mob mentality? Were they simply swept away by their anger? Early revolutionary America was marked by such groups, who were moved to rioting but historians caution against thinking of these people as callous rebels looking for a fight. Instead, these groups consisted largely of members without agency; they were people of lower social and economic means, who didn’t have the connections or the money to sway politicians to act on their behalf. This was their means of protest and gaining a voice. This was their means of writing the social history they wanted to represent their values and vision.
There is also precedent in the ancient Roman process of Damnatio Memoirae, meaning “condemnation of memory.” The Romans used it as a form of punishment for those who brought dishonor to the Roman Senate: they erased all public traces of the individual in an attempt to erase them from history. In this way, even emperors—or kings—could be deleted from public history. In the colonies, Americans moved quickly to make the royal presence a memory by defacing and destroying examples of the royal arms where they were found.
While it seems unlikely that the colonists were explicitly invoking Damnatio Memoirae, changing physical monuments seems to be an expedient means for angry citizens to take control of the representation of their social history. Ukraine has reportedly removed all 1,320 statues of Lenin in an effort to distance themselves from Soviet-era symbols and forge a new path for the country. For them, and for others, the management of public symbology is important. For Ukraine it does not undo Communism, but reflects a collective decision by the population to create a new reality.
While the statue of King George III came down, the pedestal it had stood upon and the fence that had originally surrounded it remained. These items were meant to be reminders of the trials of liberation that the colonists had undergone. (There are similar plans for the pedestals of the confederate statues for them to become memorials in some way while serving new symbols of the nation.) The fence still exists and you can visit it: it surrounds Bowling Green Park. The base was removed in 1818 much to the despair of some who felt the removal of this memorial foretold a forgetting of history and this experience. But as time has proven, change is inevitable. In this case, the base was removed following the conclusion of the War of 1812. The victory in that undertaking had superseded the sense of struggle for independence.
Time has also proven that we haven't forgotten this early act of liberation. It has been preserved in paintings and prints—although these have not always faithfully recollected the details of the day—which have been used in other liberation moments. For example, in 1848 Johannes Oertel, a printmaker, fled a failed revolution in Germany. He created a painting about the fall of the statue to (presumably) inspire his countrymen. Seventy-five years later, the events at Bowling Green were being used as a rallying cry for a nation seeking change. William Walcott, a sculptor turned painter, created his own image of toppling the statue in response to Napoleon’s coronation in France in 1854. Walcott saw parallels in the rise of Napoleon and the response of the people in this early event in American history. Flash forward to 2018 where random meme generators have been used to turn the image into a critical point against a representation of history that persists in marginalizing people.
Public symbols create easy, visible representations for how we want to be seen. They are subject to great pressure to reflect and conform to the norms established by the majority social group. They influence how we see and speak to each other. They reflect the culture of the people at hand. But their removal does not undo all that has transpired. Periodically, these symbols should be assessed because their reach can be far.
(And in case you are wondering what happened to the statue of Pitt: When British forces invaded New York, they struck it down to symbolize their displeasure with the colonists and their supporters.)
Have something to say? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
Marks, Arthur S (1981). The Statue of King George III in New York and the Iconology of Regicide. The American Art Journal, 13(3): 61-82
You might also like:
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.