Abe Lincoln and the politics of Thanksgiving

By Chuck Springston
Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.
No matter who you are, you can love Thanksgiving.

     It crosses religious boundaries and is celebrated by the rich, the poor and the middle income. It is a day untainted by politics – now. But there was a time when Thanksgiving was quite political.
     Here’s the story.
     The Thanksgiving holiday we enjoy today did not begin with Plymouth Colony’s Pilgrims in 1621 or even with earlier settlements that held similar feasts, including St. Augustine, Fla., and Jamestown, Va. It began in 1863 with President Abraham Lincoln.
     This year is the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving Day as an annual national holiday, thanks to a proclamation Lincoln issued Oct. 3, 1863.
     In early Colonial times, designated days to show thankfulness occurred primarily in New England. These were sporadic and not always related to a fall harvest.
     Even the Pilgrims did not see their three-day feast in 1621, estimated to have occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, as the start of a tradition. They did not repeat it in 1622. A thanksgiving in 1623 took place in the summer, after rain ended a drought and a ship arrived with more colonists and supplies.
     New England religious leaders occasionally called for thanksgiving days devoted entirely to fasting and prayer. Government officials declared thanksgiving days for a variety of reasons, such as victory in a battle with an Indian tribe.
     By the 1660s, the disparate forms of thanksgiving had coalesced into an annual autumn feast in much of New England. Frequently, a government announcement set the date, but even when there was no official proclamation, churches would continue the tradition.
     The first thanksgiving observed in all of the Colonies was proclaimed by the Continental Congress after the American victory in October 1777 at Saratoga, N.Y., a pivotal battle in the Revolution.
     A proclamation, issued Nov. 1, 1777, called for a day of “solemn thanksgiving and praise” on Dec. 18, to express gratitude for the “benefits received” from God, in particular that “he hath been pleased … to crown our arms with most signal success.”
     The Continental Congress announced additional thanksgiving days every year through 1784. 

     The Washington precedent

     During the first session of Congress under the new Constitution, Rep. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed in September 1789 a resolution setting up a joint committee of the House and Senate that would draft a request asking President George Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving and prayer acknowledging God’s blessings and his role in establishing the Constitution.
     Some congressmen objected for various reasons, including Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina, who said the House was meddling in something that should be left to the states. He also said the proposal involved Congress in a religious matter, which he argued was forbidden. Supporters of the proposal said it was in keeping with previous resolutions and precedents in the Bible. Both the House and Senate passed the resolution, and the joint committee delivered its request to the president.
    On Oct. 3, when the nation’s capital was in New York, Washington issued a proclamation recommending that Thursday, Nov. 26, be devoted to “the service of that great and glorious being” and that Americans “all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks” for myriad blessings the president enumerated.
     Washington wrote in his diary on Nov. 26:  “Being the day appointed for a thanksgiving I went to St. Paul’s Chapel, though it was most inclement and stormy—but few people at Church.” 
     The first president also helped initiate the tradition of serving the poor on Thanksgiving. Washington provided money to buy “provisions [food] & beer” for those jailed for unpaid debts, reported the New York Journal on Dec. 3.
    During the eight years of his presidency, Washington issued only one other thanksgiving proclamation—for a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” on Feb. 19, 1795.
     President John Adams proclaimed two days of fasting and prayer (technically not “thanksgiving” days), one for May 9, 1798, and another for April 25, 1799.
     Thomas Jefferson did not issue any proclamations on prayer or thanksgiving, believing this cracked the wall separating church and state. James Madison also objected to the injection of religion into public documents but did issue two thanksgiving proclamations associated with the War of 1812. 
     One thanksgiving was set for Jan. 12, 1814, an opportunity for Americans to express a “devout thankfulness” to God for various favors, including “victories which have so powerfully contributed to the defense and protection of our country.” Another proclamation called for an observance on the second Thursday in April 1815 so citizens could acknowledge God’s “great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace.”
     After Madison, no presidential thanksgiving proclamations were issued until Lincoln took office. (The Pilgrim Hall Museum’s website has copies of all the presidential proclamations from Washington through Barack Obama.)
     A letter to Lincoln

     Thanksgiving was celebrated in a growing number of states, but there was no national day. Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and magazine editor, set out to change that.
     Hale (1788-1879), the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” affectionately described thanksgiving traditions in her first novel, “Northwood; or Life North and South,” published in 1827.
     The owner of Ladies Magazine in Boston read the book and hired Hale as editor in 1828. In 1837, the magazine got a new owner who merged it with his own publication to create Godey’s Lady’s Book.  He kept Hale as editor, working in Philadelphia, a position she held until retiring in 1877 at age 89.
     In 1847, Hale began using the magazine’s editorials to promote the idea of national thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday in November. She favored that date because “the last Thursday in November has these advantages—harvest of all kinds are gathered in—summer travellers [sic] have returned to their homes—the  diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some  portions of our country, have ceased, and all are prepared to enjoy a day of Thanksgiving.”
     She took her case directly to the country’s presidents, writing letters to Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Other letters went to senators, U.S. ambassadors, Navy commanders and governors.
     In 1860, Hale reported that a Thanksgiving Day had been proclaimed on the last Thursday of November 1859 in 30 of the 33 states, two territories and the District of Columbia. But she still pushed for a nationwide day supported by the federal government.
     In 1863, she wrote letters to Secretary of State William Seward and President Lincoln.
     “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 [sic] fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution,” she wrote in her Sept. 28 letter to Lincoln.
     “I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject,” she added. Because the president has the “power of appointments” for the District of Columbia, the territories, the military and U.S. citizens abroad, “could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons?” she asked. “And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him” to ask the governors to “unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November.”
     Oh, and one more thing, Mr. President: “An immediate proclamation would be necessary” to make sure all the states got the news in time to set Thanksgiving Day for Nov. 26, the last Thursday in November 1863.
     In early October, Seward, a former governor and senator, walked into Lincoln’s office one morning and found him “alone and busily engaged with a huge pile of papers,” according the secretary of state’s son, Frederick Seward, who published a biography of his father in 1891.
     This is the conversation that followed:
     Seward: “They say, Mr. President, that we are stealing away the rights of the states. So I have come today to advise you that there is another state right I think we ought to steal.”
      Lincoln [looking up from his papers with a quizzical expression]: “Well, governor, what do you want to steal now?”
    Seward: “The right to name Thanksgiving Day! We ought to have one national holiday, all over the country, instead of letting governors of states name a half a dozen different days.”
      Lincoln agreed. A president, he said, “had as good a right to thank God as a governor.”
      Seward reached into his carrying case and pulled out a draft for a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, which the two men “read over together, and perfected,” according to Frederick Seward.
     Lincoln issued a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation on Oct. 3, interestingly, the same date Washington had issued the first one. He asked “citizens in every part of the United States … 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.”
    Hale had gotten her wish for a nationwide Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Coincidentally, that Thursday, Nov. 26, was the same date as Thanksgiving in Washington’s 1789 proclamation.
      Every president since Lincoln has issued a thanksgiving proclamation every year, but Thanksgiving Day was not enshrined in law until 1941.
     In 1939, during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt used his proclamation, issued Oct. 31, to move Thanksgiving up a week because the last Thursday fell on Nov. 30 and he wanted to add more days to the Christmas shopping season, hoping to give retailers a financial lift.
     But some people didn’t like the break in tradition. Others complained that the late change messed up already-set holiday plans, and some businesses protested that the shift would shorten the season for fall clothes. As a result, 16 of the 48 states refused to change Thanksgiving Day.
     Congress stepped in. It adopted and Roosevelt signed on Dec. 26, 1941, a resolution firmly establishing a fixed date for Thanksgiving—the fourth Thursday of November.
     The United States had finally settled on Thanksgiving Day, a mere 320 years after the Plymouth Pilgrims finished their meal.

     President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation, Oct. 3, 1863

     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 soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful 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, tranquillity, and union.

     In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.            

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