President George Washington happily agreed to Congress’ request for a national day of thanksgiving in 1789. His opponents declared that he’d overstepped his constitutional bounds.
When President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation under the U.S. Constitution on October 3, 1789, he was continuing an age-old tradition but adding a uniquely nationalistic slant. The United States had recently emerged victorious from a long and bitter war with the greatest power in the world, and its leaders were deeply immersed in creating a bold system of government that would ensure and protect the rights of its citizens. It was indeed a propitious time to give thanks.
Americans tend to consider the holiday of Thanksgiving uniquely their own, but such observances—thanking a divine being or beings for a successful crop, for victory in the field, for the birth of a child, for life itself—are as ancient as humanity. In North America, tribal peoples had feasts and celebrations; French and Spanish explorers and colonists are known to have held thanksgiving observances in Florida and Texas. The earliest Virginia and Massachusetts settlers carried the thanksgiving tradition with them from England, where for centuries it had been observed on various occasions, most notably Lammas Day. Originally a pagan celebration, Lammas—from the Old English “Loaf Mass”—took place at the beginning of the harvest season to commemorate the first crops of grain. The nature of the observances varied, but in many instances festivals of songs, dances and food were held, and loaves baked from the early grain were blessed to ensure a good crop.
On arriving in the New World, the 17th-century English colonists soon set aside special days for “humiliation, fasting and prayer.” Virginia has long claimed the year 1607 as the date of the first English thanksgiving service in America. It reportedly consisted of little more than a simple prayer, offered up by newly landed Jamestown settlers on the beach at Cape Henry.
Generations of schoolchildren have been weaned on the story of what we generally consider the first Thanksgiving: the 1621 feast shared by the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Indians who helped them weather their harsh first winter in a new land. Although there was, in fact, a celebration that lasted three days and did involve the consumption of turkey, as well as lobster and fish, the first civil proclamation was issued two years later, when Pilgrim governor William Bradford assigned a day specifically to “render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”
Days for fasting, prayer and thanksgiving were proclaimed subsequently throughout the colonial period and the Revolutionary War. In late 1777, when American victories were few, the Continental Congress set aside a day to thank and praise God for the much-needed victory at Saratoga. Though many such proclamations followed, this observance was the first held by all the colonies. But it remained for the nation’s first president, inspired by its first Congress, to put forth a proclamation of thanksgiving under the new Constitution and on behalf of the fledgling republic itself.
The origin of the proclamation was unique in that it was formally requested by congressional vote on a memorable day for both chambers. On September 25, 1789, Congress passed the first constitutional amendments, which state legislatures would eventually ratify as the Bill of Rights. To crown the day’s accomplishments, Elias Boudinot (pronounced BOO-di-not), representative from New Jersey, introduced the Thanksgiving resolution in the House, stating that he “could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.” Boudinot proposed “that a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”
His choice of the word “peaceably” to describe the establishment of a new government is significant. Emotions had run high over the drafting of the Constitution, and the Federalist-Antifederalist rhetoric had been heated, but it had led to neither violence nor disunion. Instead, a compromise had been reached, with several states ratifying the document on the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added later.
Boudinot, a Federalist, had been intimately involved in framing the future Bill of Rights. He had served on the Select Committee of Eleven to which the amendments, introduced by Representative James Madison in June 1789, had first been referred. He had also chaired the House Committee of the Whole that considered the revised amendments in August. Now, after a week spent reconciling their differences, the House and Senate had finally agreed on the wording. The first session of the First Congress would thus end having fulfilled the responsibility entrusted to it by the people. Boudinot’s thanksgiving resolution, introduced the same day, offered a fitting closure to the long, but blessedly peaceful, process of establishing the new government.
Boudinot was an accomplished man. Born in 1740, he read law at Princeton and became a successful attorney. During the Revolution, he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1778-79 and as its president in 1782-83. When the war ended, New Jersey sent Boudinot to the House of Representatives, and in 1795, President Washington appointed him director of the United States Mint. The respected and prosperous statesman had much to be thankful for on the morning of September 25 as he introduced his resolution in Congress.
Despite the long and venerable history of thanksgiving observances in the American colonies, not all of Boudinot’s colleagues thought it a good idea to single out a specific day for the entire nation to thank God for the new government. One congressman who balked at the proposal was Aedanus Burke of South Carolina. The Irish-born Burke had fought in the Revolution and served as a state justice, but when the time came to ratify the Constitution, Burke was vehemently opposed and so remained. Just six months prior to Boudinot’s proposed resolution, Burke was elected to the First Congress as an Antifederalist candidate. Objecting to the idea of a federally imposed day of thanks, he stated that he “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.”
Another opponent of Boudinot’s proposed resolution was Thomas Tudor Tucker, another South Carolina Antifederalist. Born in Bermuda in 1745, the alliteratively named Tucker studied medicine in Edinburgh before immigrating to the American colonies. In the words of one biographer, Tucker “found the world to be a jumble of contradictions. He distrusted the ruling gentry, yet sought to be counted among its ranks.” Although he opposed the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and most aspects of the new government, he apparently had no objection to serving in it. In fact, he rose within the political sphere to an appointment as treasurer of the United States, gaining undeniably lofty status among the class he claimed to hold in contempt. Nonetheless, the biographer points out, “Tucker constantly felt as if life had run roughshod over him.” He apparently trusted no one, and in his tract A School for Stoicism, the misanthropic Tucker averred that life “is something to be borne with suffering.”
According to The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, when Tucker was presented with Boudinot’s resolution, he said he thought “the House had no business to interfere in a matter which did not concern them. Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do? They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness. We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced; but whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us. If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States.”
Despite the strong opposition of Burke, Tucker and their ilk, the House passed the resolution and appointed Boudinot, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Peter Silvester of New York to speak with the president. The three were well-chosen. One of the most prominent statesmen in the country, Sherman was the only man to have signed the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. For his part, Silvester had served in the First and Second Provincial Congresses, and had been a member of the Committee of Safety just prior to the Revolution.
On September 28, the Senate passed the resolution and appointed William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut and Ralph Izard of South Carolina to the joint committee. An attorney who had graduated from Yale and Harvard, the 61-year-old Johnson had served in various government and judicial positions for decades and had recently been appointed Columbia College’s first president. Izard—unlike his South Carolina colleagues Burke and Tucker—had supported the resolution. He had served in the Continental Congress during the war and had pledged his personal estate to finance the building of American warships. It was indeed an illustrious group that set out to ask the president to “assign” a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.
Washington kept his own religious beliefs and practices private. He was a member of the Anglican Church, and served as a vestryman in Truro Parish, Va., in 1762 and a churchwarden for three terms. Although his church attendance reportedly varied throughout his life, he attended services regularly during his presidency. One former pastor recalled, “I never knew so constant an attendant at church as Washington.”
Washington, however, had no inclination to impose his faith on others, and he responded with uniform kindness to letters from members of different denominations and faiths. While visiting Newport, R.I., in 1790, he received a letter from Moses Seixas, the warden of Newport’s Touro Synagogue, thanking God for the “Blessings of civil and religious liberty” and invoking a blessing on Washington and his administration. Washington’s response, essentially a prayer for religious tolerance, is a masterwork of grace.
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
And, adopting a phrase from Seixas’ letter, Washington writes the deceptively simple sentence that, for all its brevity, resonates as one of the most definitive descriptions of the ideals of the nation.
“[H]appily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
In addition to his belief that every American should express gratitude for the nation’s recent successes, Washington had another, more politically motivated reason for placing his imprimatur on the thanksgiving announcement. A number of congressmen had assumed that the resolution would be directed to, and implemented by, the governors of each of the states, as had been the case in the past. Washington, however, was confronting the challenge of defining his new office in bold, nationalistic strokes—of making the presidency “strong and energetic,” as one chronicler of the early republic put it. He saw the executive issuance of such a proclamation as a subtle opportunity to establish the presidency—and the federal government itself—as the highest center of power and authority for the fledgling nation.
On October 3, five days after the joint committee presented its resolution, President Washington issued the proclamation decreeing a day of “prayer and thanksgiving.” It is an extraordinary document, the more so for being the first of its kind to be issued in the history of the nation. The proclamation is written in the fluid hand of William Jackson, a personal secretary to the president and previously the secretary to the Constitutional Convention. It begins by acknowledging the “providence of Almighty God” and invoking his “protection and favor.” Washington goes on to “recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted…to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be,” including “the favorable interpositions…which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed.” Washington reminds the people that God’s grace is responsible “for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted” as well as for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”
The president then broadly recommends thanking God “in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.” The proclamation further stipulates that the day should be spent in “most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech[ing] him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” The invocation of God’s blessing on America is particularly eloquent. It begs God’s help “to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”
Washington included the proclamation in a Circular to the Governors of the States, along with a request: “I do myself the honor to enclose to your Excellency a Proclamation for a general Thanksgiving which I must request the favor of you to have published and made known in your State in the way and manner most agreeable to yourself.”
If Thomas Tudor Tucker felt that the proclamation would “direct the people to do what…they have no mind to do,” he was in for a rude awakening. Americans celebrated the pronouncement with wild enthusiasm. Newspapers carried verbatim transcriptions, and public events were held throughout the country. Churches took advantage of the occasion to call for donations for the poor. The president’s secretary, Tobias Lear, sent a donation of $25 on Washington’s behalf to John Rodgers, pastor of two New York churches, after having seen “a paragraph in the papers” seeking contributions. Lear wrote, “The President of the United States has directed me to send it to you, requesting that you will be so good as to put it into the way of answering the charitable purpose for which it was intended.”
Six years later, after subduing the Whiskey Rebellion, George Washington issued his second and last annual thanksgiving proclamation, this time on his own initiative. Presidents Adams and Madison subsequently issued their own iterations, but for the most part, Thanksgiving remained a state holiday for decades. By 1815, at the end of the War of 1812, the individual states had issued over 1,400 proclamations calling for thanksgiving, fasting and prayer.
During the Civil War, Sarah Josepha Hale, the 74-year-old editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, urged President Abraham Lincoln to nationalize Thanksgiving and establish a fixed day for its observance. Lincoln responded by proclaiming April 30, 1863, a day “set apart for national humiliation, fasting and prayer.” It was a harsh message that Lincoln delivered to the American people. After listing the many unparalleled blessings they enjoyed, he reminded them, “[W]e have forgotten God. . . . Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become…too proud to pray to the God that made us.” He encouraged Americans to “abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits” and to unite in prayer.
Lincoln followed with another proclamation on October 3—the 74th anniversary of Washington’s proclamation—which nationalized America’s day of Thanksgiving and standardized its observance on the last Thursday of each November. The document, which was reportedly written by Secretary of State William H. Seward, ends by “fervently imploring the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” Sadly, the war would rage for another year and a half, ultimately claiming three-quarters of a million American lives, and rendering giving thanks a difficult task for countless grieving families throughout the nation.
In 1939, in one of his rare presidential missteps, Franklin D. Roosevelt—in order to extend the Christmas buying season at the behest of American businessmen—attempted to move the date for observing Thanksgiving a week earlier. At a news conference, Roosevelt assured the nation that there was nothing sacred about the date (which Lincoln himself had set) and that the decision for the date of the holiday’s observance was ultimately up to the serving president.
He was completely unprepared for the overwhelmingly negative response from the American public. The White House was inundated with letters that begged or demanded the president reverse himself. One native of Shinnston, W.Va., suggested sarcastically that, in addition to changing the traditional Thanksgiving date, Roosevelt should “Have Sunday changed to Wednesday; Have Mondays to be Christmas; Have it strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday; Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime; [and] require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.”
Ultimately, the national uproar induced Roosevelt to restore “Franksgiving,” as critics had dubbed the revised holiday, to its original day. In October 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution, formally—and presumably, forever—fixing the date as the fourth Thursday in November.
Thanksgiving has arguably become America’s warmest, most cherished national holiday. But “all the trimmings” aside, it is important to remember how it all began. Born of conflict, proposed on the same day the fledgling Congress passed the Bill of Rights and signed into law as one of the early acts of the nation’s first president, the proclamation enumerated in simple language what Americans should be thankful for: victory over a daunting foe, the founding of a new nation, the forging of a national Constitution and the establishment of a form of government that would serve as an example to the nations of the world for future generations.
Ron Soodalter wrote about the origins of American murder ballads in the February 2014 issue of American History. Soodalter is a historian, musician and ballad collector.