An Unusable Past: Urban Elites, New York City's Evacuation Day, and the Transformations of Memory Culture
Abstract

This article examines the dissolution of tradition through an analysis of the formation, transmission, demise, and failed revival of New York City's Evacuation Day. Honoring the end of Britain's occupation of New York during the Revolutionary War on November 25, 1783, Evacuation Day was associated with elites throughout its history. Its memorialization was initiated by merchants who prized it for denoting elite rule and social harmony, and it acquired a public dimension when Federalists used it in their campaign to ratify the Constitution in 1787. The anniversary experienced a crisis of generational transmission in the 1820s and 1830s that gave it new meanings and stakeholders, becoming used to memorialize the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and to assert the antebellum elite's claims to social exclusivity and civic leadership. The Civil War's transformation of American ideas of remembrance and warfare weakened adherence to the holiday by undermining its purpose and reducing its audience. Evacuation Day was revived in the early 1880s by the Sons of the Revolution, a patriotic hereditary organization and ancestral society that viewed colonial history as an elite preserve. The Sons of the Revolution completed the tradition's journey into the unusable past by privatizing the holiday.