A Toppled Statue of George III Illuminates the Ongoing Debate Over America’s Monuments

In July 1776, colonists destroyed a sculpture of the English king. A new exhibit explores this iconoclasm’s legacy—and its implications for today

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City,
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel's 1852–53 depiction of the George III's statue toppling features several ahistorical elements, including the presence of Alexander Hamilton and a fictionalized Native American family. New-York Historical Society

A decade before the Revolutionary War, when colonial Americans had yet to become disenchanted with British rule, the New York Assembly ordered an equestrian statue of George III from the workshop of London sculptor Joseph Wilton. New York City was a vital port in the burgeoning British Empire, and the assembly envisioned the sculpture as a thank you to the king. Many colonists credited George, together with the British politician William Pitt the Elder, for the repeal of the much-reviled Stamp Act.

Statues of both men arrived in Manhattan in 1770 and soon went up on their pedestals: Pitt on Wall Street and George in Bowling Green, a small park at the southernmost tip of the island. Public sculpture was a rarity in New York—and every other North American colony—and the city marked the statues’ installation with grand celebrations. When John Adams visited New York in 1774, he admired the “beautiful ellipsis of land, nailed in with solid iron, in the center of which is a statue of his majesty on horseback, very large, of solid lead gilded with gold, standing on a pedestal of marble, very high.” (No contemporary images of the Bowling Green statue survive, but written accounts offer a sense of its appearance.)

Six years after the monument’s installation, in July 1776, patriots rebelling against what they viewed as a symbol of British oppression tore down George’s likeness. In the two and a half centuries since, pictures and pieces of the statue, together with reenactments of the dramatic toppling, have helped tell a vivid story about the American Revolution. Now, amid ongoing debates about monuments and who they choose to honor, fragments of the British king’s sculpture are taking center stage in a new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. Titled “Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy,” the show explores the past and present roles of public statues in American political life, from Bowling Green to an unrealized sculpture of abolitionist Sojourner Truth to a 1939 World’s Fair commission celebrating Black music.

Charles M. Lefferts, Equestrian Statue of King George III, Bowling Green, New York City, circa 1912
Charles M. Lefferts, Equestrian Statue of King George III, Bowling Green, New York City, circa 1912 New-York Historical Society

“For decades, historians have debated the public memorialization of historical figures and events,” says Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical, in a statement. “Some have argued that monuments which can be interpreted as symbolizing racism and oppression should be removed from public view; others contend that erasing the past is not the solution to injustice. This exhibition invites visitors to consider the questions that are at the heart of the current controversy, and the history that has shaped today's discussions and debates.” These conversations “have a long history that dates back in the U.S. to its very founding,” adds Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto, senior curator of American art at the society. “Monument making and monument breaking have been shaping our national dialogue and public landscape for centuries.”

The Bowling Green statue was the biggest and brightest object in the colonial landscape. It was also one of the oddest: Following British artistic traditions, George appeared in the guise of an ancient Roman emperor. He sported a suit of armor and stretched one arm out in a gesture of imperial benevolence. The statue faced the British garrison that bore the name of the king and his immediate predecessors on the throne—Fort George—and greeted the British soldiers who exited the stronghold’s gates.

Locals had a rather different view. When they walked south along Broadway to Bowling Green, New Yorkers didn’t see the face of their sovereign. They encountered his horse’s rear end.

This was just one of the offenses that had begun to rile colonists by 1773, when the assembly passed an “Act to prevent the defacing [of] the Statues.” Like the expensive iron railing that John Adams noticed, which cost nearly as much as the royal sculpture, the act was designed both to protect the assembly’s financial investment and to keep would-be vandals at arm’s length from the monument. Nevertheless, unknown assailants attempted to deface the king’s statue (and possibly the sculpture of Pitt, too) within just three years of its arrival in New York. While it’s unclear precisely what occurred, the damage registered the growing malcontent of colonists chafing against British rule.

Joseph Wilton, Horse’s tail from the equestrian statue of King George III, 1770–1776
Joseph Wilton, Horse’s tail from the equestrian statue of King George III, 1770–1776 New-York Historical Society

These potshots were a preview of greater destruction to come. Revolutionary sentiments spiked within the city over the next few years. New Yorkers took their cue from Boston and, in April 1774, pitched crates of tea into the harbor from a vessel called the London. Militia from several colonies began to gather in New York. British soldiers abandoned Fort George. George Washington moved in nearby, setting up his headquarters next to Bowling Green. (Cue the Hamilton lyric “Here comes the General! / The pride of Mount Vernon!”)

Meanwhile, the king’s statue gleamed, unguarded, on its pedestal.

On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud to the Continental troops mustered at the Commons, an open field one mile uptown from Bowling Green. The document named 26 charges against the British monarch, citing abuses of his American subjects. Washington hoped the Declaration would encourage “every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage.” Some took the suggestion literally: As one officer noted, the troops “long had an inclination” to attack the king’s likeness.

Within hours, a crowd armed with axes, hammers and ladders had assembled in Bowling Green and pulled down the monument. Eyewitnesses reported a carnal scene of material violence. Someone beheaded the statue; others drew its parts through the streets. Army lieutenant Isaac Bangs watched a man pounce on the gilded figure of the king, scratching gold leaf from the statue’s surface. A Philadelphia newspaper relished the thought of the statue “laid prostrate in the dirt … the just des[s]ert of an ungrateful tyrant,” noting that the statue’s destruction followed the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

An 1859 engraving of the George III statue's abandoned pedestal
An 1859 engraving of the George III statue's abandoned pedestal Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Like the Philadelphia reporter, many observers in 1776 tied the statue’s fall to the Declaration. The reality, however, was more complex. While the reading of the Declaration may have served as a catalyst for the statue’s destruction, the act of iconoclasm (a Greek term meaning “image breaking”) at Bowling Green was part of a much longer history of attacking political and religious monuments in British culture. During the 16th-century English Reformation and the bloody civil wars of the 17th century, Protestant reformers characterized religious imagery as idolatry, carrying out orders to “utterly extinct and destroy [artwork] so that there remain[ed] no memory of the same.” What’s more, the king’s statue wasn’t the only British symbol assailed in New York. Royal coats of arms were torn from buildings, and effigies of colonial officials were paraded and hanged.

As some present at Bowling Green understood, the lead used to make the statue also mattered a great deal. Colonists needed the metal to produce bullets for the coming war. By March 1776, lead had become so scarce that it was being pried from leaded windows in New York buildings. The king’s statue, composed of 4,000 pounds of the metal, was a tempting storehouse of potential ammunition. No wonder Bangs gruesomely anticipated that “Emanations from the Leaden George” would make “deep impressions in the Bodies of some of his red-Coated and Torie Subjects.” Soon, the statue’s remains were on their way to Litchfield, Connecticut, where townspeople cast over 42,000 bullets for the Continental Army.

Scholars have long posited that the Sons of Liberty, a rebel group, together with Continental soldiers and sailors, were responsible for toppling the monument. British loyalists accused Washington of authorizing the destruction, but the general himself advised soldiers to leave such actions in the future to “the proper authority”—advice echoed by modern officials who urge protesters to follow the proper channels rather than pull statues down themselves. Decades later, several 19th-century writers eagerly claimed that their ancestors had led the charge at Bowling Green.

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, 1852–53
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, 1852–53 New-York Historical Society

By then, artists and historians were also celebrating the statue’s fall as a literal tipping point in the course of the American Revolution. Historical societies began collecting large fragments of the statue that loyalists in Wilton, Connecticut, had hidden underground for decades. Travel guides steered tourists toward Bowling Green. Painters and printmakers took artistic liberties in romanticized depictions of the statue’s fall: Johannes Oertel, for example, placed Alexander Hamilton and a fictionalized Native American family at the scene in an influential 1852–1853 painting.

The artist’s vision of an iconic late 18th-century event references contemporary events of the mid-19th century. He had recently emigrated from Bavaria, fleeing the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848. For New York’s large immigrant German community, the image of a monarch teetering on his pedestal may have aroused hopes of political change still to be realized in their home country.

Joseph Wilton, William Pitt, the Elder, First Earl of Chatham, circa 1770
Joseph Wilton, William Pitt, the Elder, First Earl of Chatham, circa 1770 New-York Historical Society

Oertel’s painting inspired later depictions of the statue’s destruction that endowed Bowling Green with near-mythic status. The artwork continues to spark discussions about American identity today, with educators at the New-York Historical Society using it to help prepare recent immigrants for the naturalization exam. In the new exhibition—on view through July—the painting appears alongside pieces of the toppled Bowling Green statue, musket balls recovered from Revolutionary barracks, and the 1770 sculpture of William Pitt, whose head and arms went missing during the Revolutionary War.

Directly across the gallery is Barbara Chase-Ribaud’s maquette (or model) for a sculpture honoring the abolitionist leader Sojourner Truth. Chase-Ribaud submitted the maquette to an art competition in Truth’s Massachusetts hometown in 1999, but another artist won the commission. Ikemoto hopes “visitors appreciate the connection between the two objects and [the] way that Chase-Ribaud is rethinking the equestrian tradition” by showing Truth leading her horse instead of riding it, unlike the familiar statues of men on horseback. Together, the two sculptures also demonstrate another way monuments become lost: when their creation goes unfunded.

An interactive experience at the exhibition encourages visitors to imagine new monuments—including tributes to people historically underrepresented in commemorative imagery—atop a pedestal at Bowling Green. New Yorkers have some practice with this: The statue’s marble base remained in place until 1818, and over time, some began to regard it as a monument to the Revolution. Others proposed filling the space with a statue of Washington. In 1910, a spat emerged among locals who urged the creation of a new statue of the British king on horseback and those who countered that the site was better suited for a commemoration of the colonial iconoclasts tearing down George.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Maquette (Sojourner Truth Monument), 1999
Barbara Chase-Riboud, Maquette (Sojourner Truth Monument), 1999 New-York Historical Society

A monument to iconoclasm might seem out of place today, but the suggestion was not altogether surprising for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Colonial Revival movement was enjoying its heyday at the time, and reenactments of the statue’s destruction occurred during several major commemorations of local and national history. In 1909, a papier-mâché reconstruction of the king’s statue appeared on a parade float in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, a two-week program of events chronicling New York history. A photograph from the gathering shows a group of costumed men casually holding ropes attached to the monument, ready to tear it down from its plinth. Tens of thousands of attendees cheered the statue’s impending doom as the float traveled from the Upper West Side to Washington Square Park.

Decades later, in 1932, the statue came down all over again at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. This time, the occasion was a society ball celebrating Washington’s 200th birthday. The highlight was an elaborate pageant called Old New York, organized by the costume designer for the Ziegfeld Follies. In the penultimate act of the show, performers charged at a model of the Bowling Green statue, raising huzzahs as it crashed to the floor of the ballroom.

Reenactors found new ways to revive the statue throughout the 20th century. In 1935, residents in Litchfield reenacted the melting of the statue—and even created souvenir bullets for posterity—to mark Connecticut’s tercentenary. In 1976, a bicentennial parade float in Wilton boasted an intact reproduction of the statue, but when it reached a low underpass at the high school, the head was conveniently taken off so the float could continue onward. (It won a prize for best in show.)

Crews prepare to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Richmond's Monument Avenue on September 8, 2021
Crews prepare to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Richmond's Monument Avenue on September 8, 2021. Photo by Steve Helber / Pool / Getty Images

A striking fact emerges from this cultural history: The statue of George has enjoyed a much longer afterlife in American memory than the short time it spent atop its pedestal in Bowling Green. Why—despite enduring only in fragments, pictures and performances—has it exerted such remarkable staying power?

There is no single answer to this question. Over time, artists and actors helped make the statue’s toppling—just one of many destructive events of the American Revolution—into a compelling story about the origin of the of the United States. Like many monuments, the meanings attached to the history of the statue have also changed. Colonial Revival performers reinforced their own familial ties to the revolutionary era, celebrating the statue’s fall as a patriotic necessity in the pageants and parades of the early 20th century. Today, the statue’s reappearance—in interactive videos and even as a full-size reconstruction—in museums that are telling more inclusive histories of the Revolution suggests that it holds new lessons for contemporary audiences.

What will the future bring for this long-lost statue? As fragments of the original sculpture continue to surface, it may be tempting to try to piece Humpty Dumpty back together again. In the meantime, as the 250th anniversary of the toppling—and American independence—approaches, the king’s statue will continue to inform ongoing national dialogues about both the promises and problems of public monuments.

Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy” is on view at the New-York Historical Society through July 3, 2022.