Thanksgiving is a day for a traditional menu, and part of my vacation is reprinting this annual column about the origins of the day.
The first presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was made by George Washington on October 3, 1789. But it was a one-time event. Individual states (particularly those in New England) continued to make Thanksgiving proclamations on various days in the coming decades. But it wasn’t until 1863 that a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale, after 15 years of writing speeches, prompted Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to designate the last Thursday in November as a national holiday—a pattern that then continued into the future.
An original and therefore hard-to-read copy of George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation can be viewed on the Library of Congress website. The economist in me was intrigued when he noted that some of the reasons for giving thanks included “the means we have for acquiring and disseminating useful knowledge…increasing science among themselves and us—and generally to give to all men such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows best.”
Also, the original proclamation of thanks was not without some controversy and opposition in the House of Representatives, as an example of unwanted and inappropriate federal government interference. As reported on the George Washington Papers website at the University of Virginia.
The House of Representatives was not unanimous in his determination to give thanks. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina objected that he “did not like this imitation of European customs, in which they would scoff at thanksgivings”. Thomas Theodore Tucker believed that the House of Representatives had no business interfering with a matter that did not concern them. Why should the president direct people to do what, perhaps, they do not have the mind to do? They may not be inclined to return thanks to the constitution until they have experienced that it enhances their safety and happiness. We don’t know yet but they may have a reason to not be satisfied with the effects it has already had; But whether or not that is so, it is a business that has nothing to do with Congress; It is a religious matter, and as such, it is off limits to us. If it must be a day of thanksgiving, let the authority of many nations do it.”
Here is the text of George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation from the National Archives.
Declaration of thanks
By the President of the United States of America. (a) advertisement.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the benevolence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefices, and to humbly ask for his protection and favour–and while both Houses of Congress have asked me by their joint committee “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be celebrated from By acknowledging with grateful hearts the many favors of Almighty God and especially by giving them a peaceful opportunity to establish some form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Therefore I now recommend and dedicate next Thursday, November 26, to dedicate it by the people of these nations to the service of this great and glorious being, who is the author and benefactor of all good that was, any, or that. It will be—so that we may all unite in offering our sincere and humble thanks to him—for his gracious care and protection of the people of this country before they became a nation—for the various sign and mercies, positive interventions of providence we have had in the course and conclusion of the late war—for so much calm, union, abundance, which we have enjoyed ever since—for the peaceful and rational manner, by which we have been able to establish the constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and especially that of patriotism recently instituted—for the civil and religious liberty bestowed upon us; and the means we have for acquiring and disseminating useful knowledge; and generally for all the great and varied favors which he was so pleased to render to us.
and then unite in most humility in presenting our prayers and supplications to our great master and ruler of the nations and begging him to pardon our national and other transgressions – to enable all of us, whether on public or private stations, to perform our many labors. and properly and accurately proportional duties—to make our national government a blessing to all people, by continually being a wise, just, and constitutional government, prudently and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and direct all sovereigns and nations (especially such as to show kindness to us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and to encourage science between them and us—and generally to give to all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows best.
Given by hand in the City of New York on the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, 1789.
Sarah Josepha Hill was the editor-in-chief of the magazine named for the first time Ladies Magazine And call later Ladies book From 1828 to 1877. It was among the most famous and influential women’s magazines of the time. Hale wrote to Abraham Lincoln on September 28, 1863, suggesting that he set a national date for the Thanksgiving holiday. From the Library of Congress, here’s a PDF of Hill’s actual letter to Lincoln, along with a transcript for Eyes of the 21st Century. Here are some sentences from Hale’s letter to Lincoln:
“You may have noticed that, in years past, there has been a growing interest in our land to hold Thanksgiving on the same day, in all the States; it now needs national recognition and official fixation, only to become permanently an American custom and institution. … over the course of the fifteen years Last, I have indicated this idea in the Lady’s Book, and laid papers before the Governors of all States and Territories–I have also sent these Papers to our Ministers Abroad, and our Envoys to the Gentiles–and Commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly, the most gracious approval. …but I find that there are obstacles insuperable without legislative aid–that each State shall, by law, make it the duty of the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, the feast of Thanksgiving;–or, since these The method required years to be realized, for it occurred to me that a proclamation by the President of the United States would be the best, surest, and most appropriate method of national appointment. I have written to my friend, the Hon. M. Seward, and asked him to consult with President Lincoln on the subject…”
William Seward was Lincoln’s Secretary of State. In a great example of quick government decision-making, Lincoln responded to Hill’s speech on September 28 by issuing a proclamation on October 3. Here is the text of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, which distinctively blends themes of thanksgiving, mercy, and repentance:
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
The year drawing to a close was filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthy skies. To these graces, which are so continually enjoyed that we tend to forget the source whence they came, another has been added, which is of a very extraordinary nature, so that it cannot fail to penetrate and soften even a heart usually imperceptible. For the watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war unequaled in scale and gravity, and which sometimes seemed to foreign nations to invite and stir up their aggression, peace was kept with all nations, order was maintained, laws were respected and obeyed, and harmony reigned everywhere except in the theater of military conflict. . While this theater was heavily contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. The necessary diversion of wealth and power from the peaceful spheres of industry to national defense did not stop the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; The ax has expanded the frontiers of our settlements, and has produced more mines, also iron, coal, and precious metals, than they have hitherto. The population increased steadily, despite the waste that occurred in camp, siege, and battlefield; and the country, which rejoices in the consciousness of increasing strength and vitality, is allowed to expect a continuation of years with a great increase in liberty. There is no human advice that has not been devised and these greats have not been made by a mortal hand. They are the gracious gifts of God Most High, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, yet remembered mercy. It has seemed fitting and proper to me that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as being with one heart and one voice by the entire American people. Therefore, I call upon my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, as well as those at sea and those who reside in foreign lands, to discern and celebrate the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise. To our generous Father who dwells in the heavens. and I commend them that while they justly render the proportions due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they also, with humble repentance for our national perversity and insubordination, commend his tender care of all those who have become widows and orphans, the mourners or sufferers in the unfortunate civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged From him, we fervently implore the intervention of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as possible in conformity with the divine purposes of its full enjoyment. Peace, harmony, tranquility and union.
In testimony thereof, I have hereby placed my hand and caused to affix the Seal of the United States.
DONE AT THE CITY OF WASHINGTON THIS THIRD DAY OF OCTOBER, THE YEAR OF OUR LORD, ONE EIGHTHUNDRED AND SIXTY-THREE, AND THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE EVENTY-EIGHT OF THE UNITED STATES.
Written by the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H Seward,
Minister of Foreign Affairs