The Fourth of July

Sheila here. Today we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, when the American colonies took the first formal step in separating themselves from England.

Picture a group of men, all formally dressed, locking into a relatively small room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, with the windows nailed shut so nobody outside could overhear what they were planning. It’s a wonder they didn’t all pass out from the heat. But they came up with one of the most significant single documents in modern history.

That gathering doesn’t lend itself to great art. But! We in Massachusetts have a work of art that defines our concept of patriotism: the Minute Man statue that stands by the river in Concord, designed by Daniel Chester French. Yes, I know—it represents an event that took place a year earlier, on the 18th (or 19th) of April in 1775, but it conveys the same message, in a more personal way. It’s the ordinary man, standing up against a one of the major powers of the world as it was then—and winning.

Minuteman_statue_2_-_Old_North_Bridge

Photo by Dave Pape [Public Doman], via Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Chester French is well known now (and his statue of Lincoln in Washington DC is magnificent), but when he created the Minute Man, he was just starting out. In a fictionalized biography written by his daughter Margaret, called Journey into Fame, published in 1947, the author reports that Daniel’s first sculpture was a carving of a frog wearing trousers, made from a turnip. Unfortunately for the history of art, this youthful work did not survive. But it did convince his family of his talent, and his father purchased a quantity of clay at an art supply store in Boston and presented it to his youngest son, and the rest is history.

It is astonishing now to think that the Minute Man statue was Daniel’s first commission. He was 23 at the time. In 1872 the town of Concord appointed a committee to plan for a monument for the Centennial of the famous battle, and provided $1,000 through a bequest from a local resident. The committee asked Daniel to make a model, which he began in his studio in Boston in April 1873. The model was approved and he was officially awarded the commission in November. (The fact that family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was on the committee may have helped.)

The statue was unveiled on April 19th, 1875, and the dedication was attended by President Ulysses Grant, as well as Emerson and James Russell Lowell.  Strange to say, French was NOT present at the unveiling, and was in fact in Italy.

The statue depicts a modest farmer, who is at the point of abandoning his plow and taking up his musket, to respond to the call to arms. The statue has become the iconic image of the Revolution, or at least our romanticized version of it. Even though the statue is a single figure, it embodies the conflict between the simple colonists who really wanted nothing more than to go on with their farming and raising families and so on, and the larger, better equipped and better trained English forces (who in their arrogance thought they could squash that puny rebellion in the colonies and go on collecting taxes from them).

So we’re celebrating the triumph of the ordinary people over a powerful antagonist they had little hope of beating—but they did. As a long-time genealogist, I can count at least thirteen ancestors from Massachusetts who took part in the Revolution in some way. They weren’t heroes—in fact, family legend says that one of those heard the alarm for the Battle at Concord said, “forget it—I’ve got to finish plowing.” How American that sounds: I’ll defend my new country against all odds, but let me get my crop planted first–my family needs to eat!

But here we are, 240 years later, still going strong. Happy Independence Day!