Thanksgiving is our national holiday to celebrate the year’s harvest season and has been immortalized in the teachings of American History, with the first Thanksgiving celebrated, at Plymouth, between the pilgrims and the Indians, in 1621. However, the holiday took one long, strange and grinding journey to gain its federal recognition.
After the initial celebration, the Plymouth Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving for another 50 years, largely believed to be due to the Indian conflicts of the era. By the 1630’s though, the ideal of the celebration had caught on with the Massachusetts Puritans and the Dutch of New Amsterdam. It was the Puritans who brought religious significance to Thanksgiving , but it remained a New England area holiday, for nearly 200 years.
Then, in 1782, General George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the Continental Army, granting each soldier extra food rations and 2 new shirts. This helped to popularize the holiday with soldiers outside the New England region. As President, Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1789, with the suggestion that the young country give thanks for its new constitution and the end of the war. He proposed Americans use the day “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God”. Southern Congressmen attempted to block and nullify the idea, arguing that it smacked of Yankee propaganda, Washington officially proclaimed the date despite the objections, but wouldn’t do so again for 6 years.
It was President Thomas Jefferson who nearly dealt Thanksgiving its death blow, when he refused to recognize the holiday in any of his 8 years in office. Contending that it was not consistent with the principles of separation of church and state. Considering the holiday Jefferson once wrote; “Every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
As it turned out, Jefferson wasn’t alone in his attitude towards thanksgiving and president after president, for the next sixty years, refused to proclaim the day as a national holiday. Although numerous state governors continued to proclaim the day, as an individual state holiday, Thanksgiving’s national recognition seemed to be doomed.
But then, the single greatest influence in establishing the day as a legal national holiday entered the picture, in the form of the woman who wrote, “Mary had a Little Lamb”. Sara Josepha Hale, was the editor of the world’s most famous women’s magazine of that era and she continually wrote impassioned articles, editorials, features, letters and appeals, imploring every President to act on behalf of a national Thanksgiving Day. She wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” She explained, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.” Her appeal caught the fancy of war-weary, President Lincoln, who issued the following proclamation, exactly 74 years after George Washington issued his first Thanksgiving Proclamation.
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than theretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore 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.
In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
The Washington County Historical Society would like to extend our best wishes to your family’s Thanksgiving Day festivities and we hope this year’s harvest was a bountiful one for all!