A sunny day, the Constitution ratified, rivers of ale, and marching societies—the only thing missing was ticker tape
THE TRADITION OF THE PARADE in the United States has among its origins a July 23, 1788, extravaganza in New York City. The Grand Federal Procession featured citizens from all levels of society: foresters, farmers, weavers, lawyers, professors, and many others. New Yorker William Alexander Duer, who attended as a small boy, remembered the event 60 years later as a “memorable exhibition … of which all similar celebrations since attempted have proved but feeble imitations.”
One point of the big parade was to drum up support for the Constitution, ratified by 10 states but, as yet, not New York. Federalists there hoped a celebratory procession would prod foot-dragging state legislators; Rhode Island and North Carolina were the only other holdouts. The federal government adopted the Constitution on June 21, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, but organizers proceeded with their plans, which also included an emphasis on showcasing American self-reliance and progress. Representatives of nearly all the city’s trades and professions took part. Marchers proudly carried the tools of their trades or demonstrated their crafts while riding on elaborately decorated floats. Trade guilds representing particular skills flew their banners, and many marchers wore costumes designed for the event. Every entry displayed a
As a tribute to the ten states that had ratified the Constitution, wealthy New Yorker Richard Platt, the event’s grand marshal and a colonel in the Continental Army, organized marchers into ten divisions. In an advertisement he placed in the July 22 edition of the Daily Advertiser, Platt asked residents and businesses along the parade route to “sweep and water their respective streets” that evening and the next morning. Residents embraced the spirit of the request, clearing debris and sprucing up their neighborhoods.
The morning of the procession, participants started assembling early at the foot of Manhattan in “the Fields,” a parcel at Park Row and Broadway that is now City Hall Park. At 10 a.m. trumpeters on horseback, ahead of a company of light artillery, began marching south on Broadway. The body of the procession followed. A man carrying a white banner led each division; the ten units, comprising perhaps 5,000 people, stretched for about a mile and a half. The route covered most of lower Manhattan, wending south to Fort George at the tip of Bowling Green, site today of the U.S. Customs House, then turning north on Pearl Street. The march was to end with a banquet at Alderman Nicholas Bayard’s farm, a 200-acre spread between the Bowery and Broadway.
The event was a model of what was to become a nationwide tradition, presenting fraternal organizations, patriotic sentiments, and displays of the latest technology. Farmers towed a newly invented threshing machine
able to separate and clean 72 bushels of grain in a single day. Brewers pulled a 300-gallon cask bearing the motto “Ale, proper drink for Americans.” Using an entire barrel of flour, bakers had made a “Federal Loaf” 10 feet long, 27 inches wide, and eight inches thick, with the ten ratifying states listed along one side. Butchers towed a 1,000-lb. ox carcass to be cooked and served at the banquet. A float celebrating printers included a press inked up, its type cased and ready to run; the day’s broadsheet was an ode composed for the occasion, with copies handed out to onlookers as soon as the ink dried.
The city’s tailors had run up a striking banner 10 feet by 11 feet showing a nearly life-size Adam and Eve, naked but for aprons of fig leaves and posing against a landscape with the slogan, “And they sewed fig leaves together.” The names of the ratifying states appeared as links of a chain stretching across the land. The pewterers’ orange silk banner featured the American flag at the upper left corner. Below appeared the guild’s coat of arms and the phrase “Solid and Pure” alongside an image of a pewter workshop.
Groups marching ranged in size from a few dozen people to a few hundred, usually walking behind a float, as did the 100 white-aproned butchers trailing their guild’s cart. Identifiable by their blue cockades and blue sashes, 70 hatters walked together. So did 31 breeches makers and glovers, clad in buckskin breeches, waistcoats, and gloves and flying a flag reading, “Americans, encourage your own manufactures.” The ranks included 200 carpenters, more than 100 bricklayers, and 70 cabinetmakers. A contingent of about a dozen fur traders included two Native Americans in traditional dress. One carried raw furs on his shoulders; the other led two horses loaded with pelts. Journeyman furriers followed, carrying the finished products of their labors.
Cordwainers, or shoemakers, had the third division to themselves. Their leader carried a flag bearing the guild’s crest and the motto “Federal Cordwainers,” followed by 12 master cordwainers preceding four white horses
drawing a cart on which ten cobblers plied their craft. The division ended with 340 rank-and-file members and a flag bearer.
The symbolic numbers 10—for the number of ratifying states—and 13—all the states—recurred repeatedly. The bakers dressed ten apprentices in white with blue sashes and had them carry roses, followed by ten journeymen holding bakery implements. The guild of coopers, or barrel makers, positioned at its lead 13 apprentices dressed in white set off by green ribbons. Each carried a keg under his left arm. The stonemason banner portrayed a temple whose portico rode on ten finished pillars, with three more unfinished. The banner being carried by the paper strainers, or wallpaper makers, featured ten gold stars and three silver.
The upholsterers’ guild went all out. On a handsomely carpeted float pulled by six horses and accompanied by 13 pedestrian upholsterers rode the Federal Chair of State, seven feet high and four feet wide, finished in light blue satin accessorized with white fringe and shielded by a sumptuous deep-blue satin canopy fringed with gold. To the right of the chair, a man dressed as the Goddess of Liberty held up a scroll boldly inscribed “Federal Constitution 1788.” On the big chair’s left stood Justice, blindfolded and holding a sword and scales.
Besides tradesmen, the event incorporated municipal officialdom. The ninth division included the sheriff, the coroner, and a number of robed judges and lawyers. Law students followed, the first ten in single file to symbolize the ratifying states and the rest arranged two by two. The Philological Society, whose members’ interest was words, came next, soberly clothed in black, with the secretary carrying a statement in support of a “federal language”—American English. The regents of Columbia College marched with that institution’s president and students, all in medieval academic garb. The tenth division, flying a blue flag with the motto “United we stand, divided we fall,” gathered together clergymen, physicians, scholars, and distinguished visitors; one may have been Count Lionel Désiré-Marie-René-François de Moustier, the French ambassador.
The most spectacular display was a nautically themed float, the Federal frigate Hamilton, named for the New Yorker who had been a prime mover behind the Constitution. The Hamilton was an actual ship—gangs hauled the vessel ashore from its anchorage in New York harbor for the parade. Pulling the 32-gun frigate and its crew of 30-plus mariners through the streets required a team of ten horses. At Fort George, crewmen noticed atop the ramparts the president of Congress, Cyrus Griffin, and several members of Congress. Immediately calling a halt, the seamen fired a 13-gun salute. On the north leg of the parade, cresting and descending the hills leading to Bayard’s farm, Hamilton presented an appearance “beyond description splendid and majestic,” a witness said.
All New York turned out for this momentous occasion. Spectators crowded the streets and hung out of doors and windows along the parade route. “As this splendid, novel, and interesting exhibition moved along, an unexpected silence reigned throughout the city, which gave a solemnity to the whole transaction,” grand marshal Platt wrote in his official report. “No noise was heard but the deep rumbling of carriage wheels, with the necessary salutes and signals. A glad serenity enlivened every countenance.”
The subdued mood carried through to the banquet, attended by more than 6,000, including members of Congress, foreign ministers, and clergy. Given the ration of ale consumed, the orderliness startled the French ambassador. William Dunlap, who sat at the same table as the Count de Moustier, recorded in his diary that the count asked his American tablemates how the organizers expected to get so many well-served men to return home afterward “without riots, intoxication and disorder.” His companions told him “the sense of propriety would make the meanest American blush at disorderly behavior on this public and joyful occasion,” Dunlap reported. At banquet’s end, organizers signaled the completion of the festivities by firing a gun. Guests quietly walked back to lower Manhattan. No instance of rowdiness was recorded.
Three days later, on July 26, New York became the 11th of the United States to ratify the Constitution. The parade seemed to increase New Yorkers’ enthusiasm for the new government. When news of New York’s ratification arrived, the July 28 edition of the Packet newspaper reported, “a general joy ran throughout the whole City, and several of those who were of different sentiments…declared that they were now perfectly reconciled to the new Constitution.”