Remembering Thanksgiving’s Political Past

Thanksgiving is a great holiday because of its cultural, religious and political heritage, and that political heritage should not be forgotten.

Most Americans are at least vaguely familiar with the cultural and religious background to Thanksgiving. The story of the Pilgrims gathering with the Indians and celebrating a feast of the harvest in 1621, embellished in later accounts, is what would come to mind for most Americans.

This celebration, usually seen as the beginning of Thanksgiving celebrations in America, was not the first such celebration. Others by settlements that were not permanent as well the Spanish settlers to the south had “thanksgiving” celebrations.

In fact, the cultural and religious background of thanksgiving celebrations is much older than America. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy describes the Feast of Weeks which was a celebration of the harvest. Such celebrations were common to many ancient cultures. During the Middle Ages, most European countries celebrated the Feast of the St. Martin of Tours on Nov. 11 as a special day of thanksgiving for the harvest.

The idea of a day of thanksgiving to God for his blessings is an essential part of Thanksgiving tradition.

There is also an important political history to Thanksgiving in America.

Thanksgiving celebrations in American during its colonial era were sporadic and based on local traditions. The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was a political act: it was called by the Continental Congress in 1777 and offered thanks for a military victory. In five of the next six years (1782 excluded), national days of thanksgiving were celebrated in December.

The next national day of Thanksgiving was called by George Washington in October 1789 and was accompanied by a proclamation of Thanksgiving.

He said, in part, “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor… therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these states to the service of that great and glorious Being.”

He thanked God “for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a nation, for the signal and manifold mercies…which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war…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, for the civil and religious liberty …and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”

Washington’s proclamation focused on ‘political’ blessings, not the harvest.

A national day of Thanksgiving did not become an annual event. Washington issued another proclamation in 1795 as a day of thanksgiving for general blessings. John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799. The next national day of thanksgiving did not take place until 1815, when James Madison proclaimed two different days of thanksgiving for the end of the War of 1812.

During the first half of the 19th century, several northern states began the practice of days of Thanksgiving, but there was no national holiday. The efforts of one woman, Sarah Hale, editor of an influential women’s magazine, and the actions of a later president, Abraham Lincoln, led to the establishment of an annual national day of Thanksgiving.

Hale thought it proper that there be a national day of Thanksgiving, rather than different days in different states, so that all Americans could be thankful for national blessings. She lobbied officials for many years before Lincoln proclaimed in 1863 a national day of Thanksgiving. Lincoln proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving the following year.

Lincoln’s 1864 proclamation reads, in part, that God “has pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence to the cause of Freedom and Humanity…therefore I…appoint…the last Thursday in November…as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to the Almighty God.”

Reverence for Lincoln and the lobbying of Hale, led Presidents to declare the last Thursday in November, with two exceptions, as a national day of Thanksgiving. It became legally established as the fourth Thursday in November in 1941.

Thanksgiving has more significance than turkey and football; the political history of Thanksgiving shows it was established for Americans to be thankful to God for blessings given to the nation. This Thanksgiving follow the example of Lincoln and Washington and give thanks for national blessings such as the peace, prosperity and liberty that this nation enjoys.

Michael Coulter

Michael Coulter

Dr. Michael Coulter is a professor of humanities and political science at Grove City College and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. Contact him at [email protected]

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