Travel

New York City Is A Revolutionary War Also-Ran

When it comes to the Revolutionary War, three cities are at the center of history:

—Philadelphia, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

—Boston, where all the rabble-rousing started.

—Washington, D.C., the new nation's capital and home to monuments and the original Declaration.

New York plays an unfamiliar role: also-ran.

Since its earliest days, New York City has cast a long shadow across the nation: the biggest city, the nation's financial and media hub, cultural incubator, and entry port for the waves of immigrants who would shape the nation. Oh, and the Yankees.

But in the Revolution and its immediate aftermath, the story line doesn't have the makings of a Broadway hit. Every July 4th and all the other holidays linked to the Revolution, New York is reminded that for the most part it was forced to sit on the sidelines of the seminal moments of the birth of the nation.

There were some big battles in the outskirts, but the rebels pulled out of New York early, and the city spent nearly all the war under British control. That is, the part that wasn't burned in the Great Fire of 1776. It was the de facto Loyalist capital right up until the end of the conflict, a safe haven for supporters of the crown.

New York was where Nathan Hale ("'I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.") was brought after the Battle of Long Island to be hanged as a spy. American prisoners were kept on old ships on the East River, where the mortality rate was higher than on battlefields. In 1783, the last of King George III's soldiers on American soil left for Britain from New York Harbor. This lowly highlight is celebrated in the city each Nov. 25 as Evacuation Day.

Not exactly Liberty Bell or Bunker Hill or Washington Monument kind of stuff.

But there is Federal Hall. It's where those attending a political meeting in 1765 coined the rallying cry "no taxation without representation." After the war, it was the hub of government. George Washington was sworn in there in 1789 as the first president. Congress met and wrote the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court held its first meetings there.

But New York's role as capital was over almost as soon as it started. The whole government blew town in 1790 for the new capital, Philadelphia.

There's still a Federal Hall in New York, with a statue of George Washington out front. It's even a designated National Memorial.

But it's not the original. New York's reaction to all the history that happened at Federal Hall was to tear it down in 1812 to build a Customs House for the harbor — an indiscretion of national youth.

But there are other spots. New York's star politicians of the nation's early days — Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson's vice president, Aaron Burr — ended up in a duel across the Hudson in Weehawken, N.J. Hamilton was shot dead and ended up on the $10 bill. Burr allegedly tried to set himself up as a monarch in the Western U.S., was acquitted of treason by the Supreme Court and ended up a New York lawyer who lived to 80.

Hamilton's grave in Trinity Church at the foot of Wall Street is one of the city's few top attractions linked to the Founding Fathers.

Besides this monument to pride and stupidity, the other big Revolution-era attraction in New York City is a bar. Well, OK, a tavern. Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington bade farewell to his troops. It later served as the office of the secretary of war. There's a museum, and visitors can drink or dine in an 18th-century setting. Unlike Federal Hall, it's the original.

As a former resident, I can attest: New Yorkers do like their bars.

CHECKLIST

Fraunces Tavern, 54 Pearl St., New York, 212-968-1776; www.frauncestavern.com

Trinity Church, Broadway at Wall Street, New York, 212-602-0800; www.trinitywallstreet.org

Federal Hall, Wall and Nassau streets, New York, 212-825-6990; www.nps.gov/feha

  Comments