As I type this morning, folks in New York City are preparing for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And if it’s anything like previous spectacles, there will be floats and bands, convertibles with people waving to the crowds, and probably a celebrity or two. It’s a big deal. But Macy’s hasn’t been around forever. Neither has Thanksgiving, for that matter. And if you had been in New York City 227 years ago, it would have looked nothing like it will this morning on TV.
But there was a parade…of sorts.
The end of the American Revolution and American victory meant that the remaining British soldiers needed to get out of town. And New York was one of the last major towns where pro-British sentiments were strong. But things were changing. As spring warmed to summer in 1783, those who considered themselves loyal to the British Crown began leaving. Government personnel, businessmen, and families all headed to Canada or back across the Atlantic. The loss of businesses was particularly hurtful, as lots of money and jobs were removed from New York’s economy. By the thousands they pulled up stakes and left.
And what’s more, since the British military had taken control in 1776, New York had been under martial law and had been left in a terrible state of disrepair. Much of the damage done by the fire in September of that year had never been cleaned up. Fences and trees had been chopped up for firewood. The skeletal remains of homes and businesses testified to a much better past, while the cattle roaming the streets and piles of garbage were the reality of the present. Looking at the harbor, one visitor (probably holding his nose) said, “Noisome vapors arise from the mud left in the docks and slips at low water, and unwholesome smells are occasioned by such a number of people being crowded together in so small a compass, almost like herrings in a barrel, most of them very dirty and not a small number sick of some disease.” It had become a shantytown.
But on November 25, 1783, there was a parade…a military parade. Evacuation Day it was called. The day the last of the British soldiers left town, and new ownership arrived. The incoming group was led by General Henry Knox, whose first act was to raise the American flag on a brand new flag pole (British soldiers had taken down their flag and greased the pole on their way out). He was followed by General Washington and Governor George Clinton and their guard.
The remaining citizens of New York were ecstatic. Seven long years under the thumb of the British was more than long enough, and the day was one of celebration. And now, the last British outpost was under the flag of freedom. America was truly independent. Ron Chernow summarizes by writing, “America had been purged of the last vestiges of British rule. It had been a long and grueling experience – the eight years of fighting counted as the country’s longest conflict until Vietnam – and the cost had been exceedingly steep in blood and treasure.” Indeed, it has been estimated that upwards of 25,000 soldiers had been killed in the Revolution. This amounted to about 1% of the nation’s population, a ratio only surpassed by the Civil War.
Macy’s or no, a parade was most appropriate.
Have a wonderful, and safe, Thanksgiving.