Nov. 25, 2013
Celebrating “Evacuation Day” today?
Huh? Well, it’s nothing less than the end of divine right monarchy in America, and the beginning of humans starting to govern themselves. A day that used to be widely celebrated, until it was overwhelmed by the more religious Thanksgiving. Check out this excerpt from John G. Rodwan Jr.’s Holidays and Other Disasters from Humanist Press.
Excerpt from Holidays and Other Disasters, by John G. Rodwan Jr.
The war to establish rather than preserve the nation gave rise not only to famished Thanksgiving Day questioners; it also initiated a different holiday of appreciation, albeit a local one. “For more than a century,” biographer Ron Chernow says in Alexander Hamilton (2004), “November 25, 1783, was commemorated in New York City as Evacuation Day, the blessed end to seven years of British rule and martial law.” Of course, there had been more than seven years of British rule if one considers the years prior to the Revolutionary War, but in September 1776 the British army made its headquarters in New York. During the occupation, the city was ravaged by a massive fire and thousands of revolutionary soldiers and supporters were held in prison ships. So the conflict’s conclusion (“blessed” or otherwise) and the departure of redcoats warranted special notice there. According to a Harpers New Monthly Magazine article on Evacuation Day’s centenary, on the actual day in 1783, American soldiers tried to raise the Stars and Stripes after the Union Jack had been taken down at Fort George in lower Manhattan only to find that the British had taken the rope and tackle along with their flag and had also greased the flagpole. Undeterred, a resourceful young soldier equipped himself with cleats and nails and managed to work his way up the pole, install new halyards and raise the flag. The image of that event came to symbolize the day and its resonant secular significance: a successful fight for liberty.
Before the more spiritual holiday displaced it from the calendar, no-nonsense Evacuation Day marked change and renewal – the death of one type of society and the birth of a new one – with a refreshing freedom from theological overtones. It suggested the realization of just the sort of republic envisioned by Thomas Paine, who contributed to both the U.S. and the French Revolutions: one subservient to neither gods nor kings. At the 1883 centennial celebration, New York Mayor Franklin Edson, confident of the holiday’s sustaining resonance, said it should be honored by all people who “found upon these shores a refuge from exactions and acts of oppression by ruler of foreign countries.”
During the decade I lived in the city, I mentioned Evacuation Day to acquaintances, including many lifelong New Yorkers, and not one had ever even heard of it. Possible explanations for Evacuation Day’s demise immediately present themselves. Perhaps the very specificity of the defunct day’s reason for being – troops leaving the city – undermined its ability to endure. Even though Lincoln in 1863 envisioned Thanksgiving Day on the day he selected as a one-time, morale-boosting, war-time event, it ended up recurring annually on the last Thursday of November because the holiday’s broadness – its call to reflect on whatever one might feel grateful for – allowed it to adapt and persist. With the Fourth of July recognized as the annual celebration of independence, Evacuation Day could be considered redundant. When, during World War I, the United States and Britain joined forces as allies, cheering the long-in-the-past end of British occupation came to seem unseemly, if not irrelevant. However, if banks and other businesses can close for days connected with both the birth and the death of one religion’s messiah, then I see nothing wrong with holidays marking both the start and the end of the Revolutionary War. (One of the better aphorisms from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar concerns Independence Day: “Statistics show that we lose more fools on this day than in all the other days of the year put together. This proves, by the number left in stock, that one Fourth of July per year is now inadequate, the country has grown so.”) Besides, glorifying the end of hostilities, rather than their commencement, gave Evacuation Day an especially upbeat tone.
For more information about Holidays and Other Disasters, click here.