“How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of and which no other people on earth enjoy.” —Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
This quote is chiseled at the top of the granite drum that forms the base of the Independence Flagstaff.
At the center of Union Square Park stands the Independence Flagstaff. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, thus its name. Less commonly it is also known as the Charles F. Murphy Memorial Flagpole.
The Independence Flagstaff was paid for, and gifted to the city from the Tammany Society. It replaced a flagpole that had been erected in 1926 to honor Charles F. Murphy (1858–1924), a past president of the Tammany Society. Also known as Tammany Hall, this was the most corrupt political machine that ran New York City throughout most of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th.
Tammany Hall, which was a part of the Democratic Party apparatus and once imperiously ruled New York City, was shutdown by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and Democratic reformers in the 1930s. Tammany’s last headquarters, located near Union Square at the corner of East 17th Street and Park Avenue South, is now a New York City landmark. Known as “Silent Charlie,” Boss Murphy led Tammany Hall from 1902–1924. Murphy’s friends and associates wanted the new flagpole to be named for him; but others objected, claiming it was inappropriate to have a memorial to such a corrupt man in a park that included monuments to Lincoln, Washington and Lafayette. Instead the flagpole was dedicated in honor of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Named for Tammany, a Native American chief, the organization, founded in the late 18th century, was not all bad. Beginning in the 1860s it was the strongest advocate for the voting rights of all citizens, especially poor immigrant citizens. It was instrumental in helping millions of immigrants assimilate, especially the Irish, who loyally supported the party machine with their votes. Tammany supported public works, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, building public schools, paving streets, and advocating universal suffrage. Tammany Hall stood for democracy and equal rights.
Originally known as Union Place because of the meeting, or union of two important roads, the Bowery Road, now Fourth Avenue, and Bloomingdale Road, now Broadway, Union Square was opened as a public park in 1832. Ten years later a large, ornamental fountain was added to the center of the square. This celebrated the arrival of fresh water—a very big occasion—to New York City from the Croton Aqueduct in New York State’s Westchester County. This is the same location where the Independence Flagstaff was erected when Union Square was completely redesigned in the late 1920s, raising it four feet from street level. The reason for the square’s renovation was to accommodate New York’s modern transportation system; beneath the square a major subway station was built, where seven different subway trains passed through.
“This monument, setting forth in enduring bronze the full text of the immortal charter of American liberty, was erected in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.” 1776 . July 4th . 1926
—the text of a plaque at the rear of the flagstaff’s drum-shaped, 36-foot-wide, granite base
Sheathed in copper, the 40-foot tall steel flagpole, topped with a gilded sunburst, is said to be one of the tallest in the State of New York. Along with the Stars and Stripes, the black-and-white Missing-in-Action Flag can also be seen flying.
Just below the flagpole, representing the original thirteen colonies and the first states, are thirteen shields, bearing the states’ coat-of-arms; they encircle the flagstaff’s support. Above the shields there is a Roman fasces, a bundle of wooden rods with a projecting axe blade representing unity and strength. The fasces was a common motif in patriotic American artwork of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it was used on the reverse side of the U.S. Mercury dime. It fell out of favor as a decorative symbol when Italian Fascism, which derives its name from the fasces, gained popularity.
Because the base of the flagpole is dark and shaded by trees in the spring and summer, it can be easy to ignore, but it is well worth a close look. The gate leading to the flagstaff is open during the day in fair weather. At the front of the base is the entire Declaration of Independence, cast in bronze, with the names of all the signers. The bronze panels encircling the drum feature a procession of allegorical figures representing tyranny and democracy. All the figures are making their way to the Declaration of Independence.
On the monument’s right side a procession of idealized figures—hardworking and industrious—marches towards liberty, symbolized by the Declaration of Independence. The attractive figures are proud and free. They personify art, industry, labor and vigilance. An unbridled winged horse embodies the free spirit and independence of America. Leading the group is a kneeling woman; she holds up an infant, who has rays of light emanating from his head, which is encircled with a halo of thirteen stars, representing the original American states, representing the country’s future.
In stark contrast, the left-hand side portrays dispirited figures—subjugated and benighted—trudging past a stern tyrant and his formidable stallion. Grinding their way to freedom, they are blocked by their overlord. The group represents the exhausting price that tyranny can impose. The bridled horse is an ancient symbol of dominance. An example of this dates from the mid-13th century. Following conquest of Naples in 1250 by King Conrad of Sicily (1228–1254), the king ordered that a bit and bridle be added to the city’s symbol, an unrestrained horse to illustrate his authority.
There are flaws in how the relief is executed. The anatomy of the men, who appear to have developed breasts, and the foreshortening are poor. These drawbacks are excusable because of the grand spirit of the artwork, and how rare it is to see art that celebrates freedom, and its differences with the effects of tyranny on the human spirit.
The oldest monument in a New York City park, the equestrian bronze of George Washington was dedicated, as was the Independence Flagstaff, on the Fourth of July; the year was 1856. Sculpted by Henry Kirke Brown (1814–1886) this Washington on horseback is in direct alignment with the Independence Flagstaff, at the square’s center, and another work by Mr. Brown at the park’s northern end, the standing bronze figure of Abraham Lincoln. Anthony de Francisci (1887–1964), sculptor of the bronze reliefs, was a great admirer of Honest Abe, who faces the Independence Flagstaff.
The high reliefs and plaques around the 9-foot 6-inches high granite pedestal were completed in 1926. The architects were Perry Coke Smith and Charles B. Meyer At the rear of the bronze reliefs is the following inscription, ANTHONY DE FRANCISCI / PERRY COKE SMITH / 1926. Although dedicated on July 4, 1930, the bronze reliefs and plaques were cast by the Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn in 1926.
Mr. de Francisci immigrated to America with his parents from Sicily in 1905; he became a naturalized citizen in 1913. Mr. de Francisci lived and worked in New York City, and was also an active member of the community of artists on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. His peers included Paul Manship, whose 1934 gilded bronze sculpture Prometheus presides over the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink.
Mr. de Francisci’s designed models for the 1920 Maine Centennial Commemorative Half Dollar with the United States Mint. In 1921 Mr. de Francisci won a competition to design the Peace Dollar, a United States silver dollar coin minted from 1921 to 1928, and again in 1934 and 1935, meant to celebrate the ending of the First World War. The coin’s obverse shows the profiled head and neck of the Goddess of Liberty; on the reverse depicts a resting bald eagle, clutching an olive branch, with the legend “Peace” and be seen. This was the last United States dollar coin that was minted for circulation in silver. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon approved Mr. de Francisci’s design for the Peace Dollar in December 1921.
Because he had little time to complete his design, Mr. de Francisci was not able to hire a model. For the obverse design of the Goddess of Liberty the sculptor used the features of his wife, Teresa de Francisci. Born Teresa Cafarelli in Naples, Italy, she immigrated to America at the age of five. As the steamer ship she and her family traveled on passed by New York Harbor’s Statue of Liberty, she was so impressed with it that she assumed the pose of Liberty Enlightening the World, the full title of the statue.
“You remember how I was always posing as Liberty, and how brokenhearted I was when some other little girl was selected to play the role in the patriotic exercises in school? I thought of those days often while sitting as a model for Tony’s design, and now seeing myself as Miss Liberty on the new coin, it seems like the realization of my fondest childhood dream.”
—Teresa de Francisci (1898–1990), as she wrote to her brother Rocco after posing for the Goddess of Liberty
When you are part of our Five Squares and a Circle Tour you will see the Independence Flagstaff and more in Union Square, the second square of the five squares on the Tour. Take the Tour; Know More!
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT NOTED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2016