When the Village tried to secede from the nation

The first time was in the summer of 1916.

“Ellis Jones, an editor at the humor magazine Life, had called upon his fellow Villagers to join him in a second American Revolution declaring their community independent of the United States,” wrote Ross Wetzsteon in 2002’s Republic of Dreams.

Jones’ announcement was reportedly meant to be cheeky. But cops didn’t get the joke.

They greeted the dozen or so “revolutionaries” in Central Park with machine guns and ambulances, in case of anarchist riots (none materialized).

The second stab at independence was more clever. On a frigid January night in 1917, six Villagers—led by painter John Sloan, artist Marcel Duchamp, and Gertrude Dick, a young student of Sloan’s who loved a good prank—slipped past a patrolman into a side door of the Washington Square arch.

They climbed the 110 steps of the spiral iron staircase carrying wine, cap guns, balloons, Chinese lanterns, and sandwiches.

“Soon soused, the six Arch-Conspirators decided the moment had arrived,” wrote Wetzsteon.

“They tied their balloons to the parapet, and, in John’s words, ‘did sign and affix our names to a parchment. having the same duly sealed with the Great Seal of Greenwich Village.’

“As the other five fired their cap pistols, Gertrude read their declaration, which consisted of nothing but the word ‘whereas’ repeated over and over—surely Marcel’s inspiration—until the final words proclaiming that henceforth Greenwich Village would be a free and independent republic.”

Well, clearly, an independent republic wasn’t established. “The only result of the Revolution of Washington Square was that the door at the base of the arch was permanently locked,” said Wetzsteon.

[Top image and bottom photo, Washington Square arch in the teens and 1902, from the NYPL Digital Collection. Middle image: John Sloan’s 1917 sketch “The Escapade of the Arch Conspirators”]

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3 Responses to “When the Village tried to secede from the nation”

  1. Upstate Ellen Says:

    “Occupy the Arch” (sorry)

  2. T.J. Connick Says:

    The notion was developed to full comic effect in T.E.B. Clarke’s screenplay for Passport to Pimlico. The 1949 film by Ealing Studios explores the funny side of secessionism when a bit of central London declares itself the Duchy of Burgundy.

  3. Colorful poster stamp images of an older city | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] is mostly known now for its role as a relief center on and just after September 11, 2001. The Washington Square Arch is still there and must-see for out-of-towners. But no cars […]

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