Did you know that in Union Square, the words of the Declaration of Independence are inscribed on a ten-foot-high bronze tablet? The Independence Flagpole in Union Square commemorates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration.
- Murphy Flagpole (Independence Flagpole)
- Date: 1926, dedicated 1930
- Sculptor: Anthony de Francisci, granite base by Perry Coke Smith.
- Medium & size: Bronze reliefs are 9.5′ high.
- Location: Center of Union Square, New York City
Around the base of the flagpole are reliefs showing the effects of freedom and tyranny. The tyranny series starts at the north and runs along the west side of the flagpole’s base. It begins with an American Indian and a buffalo – symbols of a simple but primitive life. The ahead of these, figures in classical drapery, cringing and bowed, stumble and stagger and crawl along.
These figures have nothing – no belongings, no dignity, nothing but the clothes on their backs. The man they’re moving toward, on the other hand, has an elegantly armored and caparisoned horse, a huge sword, and holds a crown. He’s the tyrant. To reinforce his evilness, he’s stepping on a skull, and a snake slithers along beneath his foot.
Starting at the north and running along the east side of the flagpole base is a relief showing the benefits of freedom. (The NYC Parks Department site calls this “democracy” rather than “freedom,” but democracy – majority rule – is not a guarantee that individual rights will be respected; and without those, there is no freedom.)
The figures on this side have food and labor-saving devices. A warrior with a sword and helmet is among them, but he’s one of them – not their ruler.
One figure carries a giant book, reminding us that freedom allows people to gain and pass along knowledge.
Near the end is another figure with a winged horse. She’s carrying laurels rather than a crown, and she beckons the figures behind rather than threatening them with a sword. In Greek mythology Pegasus, the winged horse, was strong and loyal to anyone who tames him; and when his hooves strike the ground, a spring bursts forth. (See here and here.) His presence adds to the abundance on the freedom-side of the flagpole base.
At the end nearest the Declaration of Independence, a woman raises a child. The child’s head is haloed with thirteen stars (for the original thirteen colonies) and rays of light shoot from it. I like the idea that all these figures are seeking a child – someone who’s still a potential, in contrast to the young and handsome tyrant on the opposite side of the flagpole base.
On a granite band above the reliefs appear the words: “How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of and which no other people on earth enjoy – Thomas Jefferson”. (Still true!)
Above the reliefs, at the base of the flagpole proper, are the emblems of the original thirteen colonies, each with its name below.
In the pavement are set the names of the states and a federal eagle.
And at the top of the flagpole is a giant sunburst.
A.k.a. the “Murphy Flagpole”
Monuments such as Miller’s Dr. James Marion Sims and MacMonnies’s Civic Virtue became controversial as times and standards changed. This flagpole started out controversial, due to its association with Charles F. Murphy (1858-1924). In 1902, three decades after Boss Tweed’s death, Murphy became the leader of Tammany Hall. Scandals and political defeats had damaged the notorious New York political machine, but Murphy kept it alive. He’s credited with blocking William Randolph Hearst’s mayoral bid by the use of fraudulent ballots. Mayors William J. Gaynor and John F. Hylan were elected with his help, as was New York State Governor Alfred E. Smith. He was instrumental in launching the careers of Senator Robert F. Wagner and Judge James A. Foley. On Murphy’s career, see Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Jackson (1995), p. 783. (The second edition is here.)
This flagpole replaces one erected during Murphy’s tenure as boss of Tammany Hall. Tammany supporters wanted the new one named for Murphy, who had died in 1924 – but many New Yorkers felt that it was inappropriate to link Murphy’s name with those of Washington, Lincoln, and Lafayette, all of whom were honored with sculptures in Union Square. Hence it was named “Independence Flagpole.”
Speaking of political corruption … John Purroy Mitchell won election as mayor of New York City in 1914, on a promise that he would fight corruption. Frederick MacMonnies’ Civic Virtue was begun in 1909 and dedicated in 1922 smack dab in front of City Hall, as a celebration of the City’s decreasingly corrupt government and a reminder to the incumbents to keep it up.
This and Civic Virtue were among the last allegorical sculptures erected in New York City. The anatomy on this one isn’t great, but kudos to Francisci for the concept.
- The NYC Parks Department’s website includes a link to a video of the unveiling in 1930. Unfortunately, the link isn’t working.
- The signature of the sculptor, Anthony de Francisci (1887-1964) appears on the north side of the flagpole’s base. My favorite work by Francisci is his small relief of Adolph Weinman, one of his teachers, which I used at the end of my post on Weinman’s Samuel Rea.