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Two Presidents and the Mother of Thanksgiving

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner, 20 November 1869, by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, Source: Library of Congress

When most people think of Thanksgiving, they conjure images of Pilgrims and Indians. While the first "Thanksgiving" occurred in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast, it was not celebrated or commemorated as a national holiday until two centuries later. Here is the story about how it became the holiday as we know it today.

Long before becoming our first president, George Washington knew the value of a day of thanksgiving. During the American Revolution, he would order special thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles. He publicly endorsed efforts by the Continental Congress issued proclamations declaring several days of thanks, in honor of military victories and alliances.

The Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg

Newly inaugurated President George Washington first mentioned the possibility of a national Thanksgiving Day in a confidential letter to James Madison in August 1789, just months after taking office, asking for his advice on approaching the Senate for their opinion on “a day of thanksgiving.” On 3 October 1789, he issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States:

" 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 form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now 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, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His providence, 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, 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 with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, 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, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789."

The proclamation was printed in newspapers, including the 9 October 1789 issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser. On the day of thanksgiving, Washington attended services at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City and donated beer and food to imprisoned debtors in the city.

He proclaimed a second day of Thanksgiving in 1795, following the defeat of the Whiskey Rebellion.

Both John Adams and James Madison designated days of thanks of their own during their presidencies. Fellow founding father Thomas Jefferson, however, believed that the religious connotations surrounding the event were inappropriate and out of place in a nation founded on the separation of church and state. Subsequent presidents after Madison agreed with Jefferson and no official Thanksgiving declarations were issued after 1815.

In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century, coinciding with, and eventually superseding the holiday of Evacuation Day, which was celebrated on 25 November to commemorate the day the British exited New York City in 1783 after the Revolutionary War. However, it remained a largely Northern (or Yankee) tradition; the American South remained largely unfamiliar with it.

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879)

Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent writer and editor, had written the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” originally known as “Mary’s Lamb,” in 1830 and helped found the American Ladies Magazine, which she used as a platform to promote women’s issues. In 1837, she was offered the editorship of Godey’s Lady Book, where she would remain for more than 40 years, leading the magazine to a circulation of more than 150,000 by the eve of the Civil War and turning it into one of the most influential periodicals in the country. In addition to her publishing work, Hale was a committed advocate for women’s education (including the creation of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York), and raised funds to construct Massachusetts’s Bunker Hill Monument and save George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

The New Hampshire-born Hale had grown up regularly celebrating an annual Thanksgiving holiday. In 1827 she published a novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, that included an entire chapter about the fall tradition, which was already popular in parts of the nation, especially where she lived in New England. While at Godey’s, Hale often wrote editorials and articles about the holiday and she lobbied state and federal officials to pass legislation creating a fixed, national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November. She believed that such a unifying measure could help ease growing tensions and divisions between the northern and southern parts of the country. Some politicians were not receptive to Hale’s activism. President Zachary Taylor threw up his hands in 1849 and said each state could set its own Thanksgiving Day. Southerners rejected the holiday as another Northern imposition. In Virginia, Governor Henry Wise scoffed that he refused to acknowledge the “theatrical national claptrap that is Thanksgiving.” However, Virginia became the first southern state to adopt a Thanksgiving Day in 1855.

The outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 did little to stop Hale's efforts to create such a holiday. She continued to write editorials on the subject, urging Americans to “put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and rally around the unifying cause of Thanksgiving. The holiday continued, despite hostilities, in both the Union and the Confederacy.

In 1861 and 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations following Southern victories.

President Abraham Lincoln called for a day of thanks in April 1862, following Union victories at Fort Donelson, Fort Henry and at Shiloh.

Hale wrote a letter to President Lincoln, dated 28 September 1863, encouraging him to make an “immediate proclamation” recognizing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. With the president’s help, Hale hoped, Thanksgiving could become a permanent “American custom and institution.” She openly linked the holiday with the war effort, calling it “fitting and patriotic” to hold Thanksgiving as a “great Union Festival of America" and recommended that Lincoln choose the last Thursday in November for the holiday in memory of George Washington’s 1789 day of Thanksgiving. Since 26 November 1863 was less than two months away, she gently suggested “an immediate proclamation would be necessary.”

Lincoln had just declared a day of Thanksgiving in August 1863 for the July victory at Gettysburg. It seemed a long shot to ask the president to declare a national Thanksgiving holiday a few months later. Perhaps aware of overstepping her bounds, she closed her letter to the President with, “Excuse the liberty I have taken.” Less than a week after receiving Hale’s letter, Lincoln issued the proclamation Hale recommended on 3 October 1863. He announced that the nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on 26 November 1863. The speech was actually written by Secretary of State William Seward:

"The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields 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 cannot fail to penetrate and even soften 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 provoke their aggressions, 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 fields 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 heretofore. 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."

Thanksgiving Day In The Army by Winslow Homer

So just how did Thanksgiving come to be celebrated the way it is today? Well, in my opinion, that it is also to Sarah Josepha Hale's credit. In her novel Northwood: A Tale of New England, she describes one Northwood farm family’s Thanksgiving feast. It was sumptuous, with a roasted turkey at the head of a table full of delectable dishes, including, of course, “the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.” The table also included other meats, vegetables and desserts, but the turkey and the pumpkin pie “took precedence.” Once the food was blessed and God was thanked for all His bounty and mercy, people began eating with “little of ceremony.”

Before dinner the host explains the custom of Thanksgiving to an English guest. The holiday, he says, is “a tribute of gratitude to God” for “the overflowing garners of America.” He hopes it will be “universally observed” as a way to show thanks “for our republican institutions, which are based on the acknowledgment that God is our Lord, and that, as a nation, we derive our privileges and blessings from Him.”

Even after Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday, she continued to promote the inclusion of Thanksgiving as a distinctive and unifying national cultural event by sharing recipes for turkey, cranberries, potatoes, oysters and more, and even promoted "proper" attire for a family Thanksgiving. Her vision was that “wherever an American is found, the last Thursday (of November) would be the Thanksgiving Day. Families may be separated so widely that personal reunion would be impossible; still this festival, like the Fourth of July, will bring every American heart into harmony with his home and his country.” There is a reason she is referred to as "The Mother (or Godmother) of Thanksgiving."

And that is how Thanksgiving Day became the national holiday as we celebrate it today.


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