The Spirit of 76 reappeared again and again after the American Revolution as an idea, as a symbol and as a propaganda tool aimed at a public not terribly keen on going to war in Europe.
In the year leading up to the American entry into World War I, the conflict was unpopular with large swaths of the American public. For many Americans, the European War was just that—a war about and for Europeans.
The campuses of elite colleges such as Yale were the exception. Many students dropped out to join foreign forces or American volunteer efforts.
But, by and large, Americans went about their business—and business for the country’s burgeoning manufacturing base was very good. American factories cranked out all sorts of materiel to fill the Allied needs for war.
President Woodrow Wilson advocated neutrality when war broke out in Europe. His views slowly changed as Germany redirected its aggression toward the United States. Merchant ships and unarmed passenger ships were sunk, and people’s lives were lost.
Then Germany sent a telegram to Mexico suggesting a military alliance. That pushed Wilson and Congress to declare war in April 1917.
But total participation in the war effort was essential. How could the American people be persuaded to support it by Congress, local governments and all of the supporting organizations?
Congress had the power, and used it, to institute the selective service (draft), but, much more was needed to win the hearts and minds of Americans. Federal and local governments used propaganda that was hard to ignore.
Images of the American Revolution were revived, especially the Spirit of 76. It was seen everywhere: the library, the post office and the bank.
Today, few know how images of Nathan Hale and the American Revolution were revived during the World War I era.
A bronze monument of Nathan Hale stands on the Old Campus of Yale University, close to Connecticut Hall, where Hale roomed as a student.
Student tour guides leading hopeful families visiting the 316-year old school always stop at Hale. They pause to tell the story of the young teacher/spy who was hanged by the British in 1776—only a few short months after Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Hale was a potent symbol of heroism and sacrifice during World War I. There were others, as well, but none so popular as Spirit of 76 itself, a pastiche of sentiment codified in a painting from 1876.
Spirit of 76
The Spirit of 76 first took shape just after the Revolutionary War, when arguments about the structure of the new government threatened the stability of the new country. Looking back at the heady days of 1775 and 1776, patriots such as Thomas Jefferson took up their pens and referred to the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Instead of dying out with the first generation of revolutionaries—Thomas Jefferson and John Adams famously passing on the same day, July 4,, 1826, the only holiday Jefferson celebrated—the Spirit of 76 was revived again and again over the following century and beyond.
Most significantly, the Spirit of 76 appeared in a painting at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, the centennial of the founding of the country. Archibald MacNeal Willard, a Civil War veteran painted the canvas after viewing a patriotic parade.
Willard painted several versions of the Spirit of 76 (the original is in Abbot Hall in Marblehead, Mass.). Its imagery of the drummer boy, flutist with the bandaged head and the old man, drumming on in the midst of a terrible battle, has been reproduced in countless ways since its creation.
The Spirit of 76 and the revival of American Revolutionary stories and images happened on the western front as well as on the home front.
Doughboys from the Yankee Division painted insignias of Paul Revere’s Ride (Division Headquarters Troop) and the Bunker Hill Monument (101st Engineer Train) on their helmets. The Minute Man image became a symbol of the Yankee Division as a whole—appropriate since it was formed of National Guard units from New England.
The Battle of Seicheprey was one of the first battles for the Americans on the western front, involving the 102nd Regiment (with members mostly from Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts) of the Yankee Division.
One doughboy, Clifford Markle, predicted that “Seicheprey will go down in American history as the Lexington of the World War.”
In New Haven, where the 102nd trained at Camp Yale, it’s no surprise the Nathan Hale Monument was identified as significant during the World War I era. Hale was young and inexperienced, like the first doughboys on the front, but his words — “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”– were the very essence of the Spirit of 76.
The Spirit of 76 died down after the end of the war, only to be revived again during World War II and, later, during the country’s Bicentennial celebrations. There is history and myth, symbolism and spirit wrapped up in the Spirit of 76—something a little deeper than Uncle Sam, perhaps, that other famous image revived during World War I.
About the Author
This story was updated in 2022.