Have you ever thought Thanksgiving to be a patriotic holiday? When we consider that Thanksgiving is at the heart of the American experience, intertwined with special moments in American history such as the coming of early European settlers, the American Revolution, Civil War, influx of immigrants, and westward expansion, you will discern that patriotism played a prominent role. Religious faith also played a part in these events.
The commonly told story of the initial Thanksgiving is very familiar to most Americans—Pilgrims and Indians, turkey and cranberries, giving thanks. However, few Americans know much about the day’s multifaceted history.
In 1620, one hundred and two English settlers, known as Pilgrims, sailed on the Mayflower, eventually landing off of the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Pilgrims were known as Separatists as they were dissenters who sought to freely engage in their faith by separating from the Church of England. These settlers named their new home Plymouth, after the English port city from which they had previously embarked on their journey to the New World
Generations grew up picturing the first Thanksgiving taking place on a beautiful fall day with Pilgrims and Indians gathering outdoors around an extended dining table, sharing a bountifully festive meal. The famous 1914 painting by Jennie Brownscombe called The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, depicts Indians regaled in their full-feathered headdresses with clothing featuring dull colors is full of historical inaccuracies. The New England Indians did not have feathered headdresses and they wore brightly-colored clothing of reds, blues, and greens. Had there been a table, the Pilgrim women would not have been seated with the men. Instead, they would have been busy preparing the meal. Most likely, the first Thanksgiving did not take place in the fall, but probably late summer when the harvest would have been gathered. But we must realize that this painting is simply an interpretation and to be enjoyed as such.
Of those brave souls who left their homeland to seek a fresh beginning in a New World, half of the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower survived the first year. Yet, despite their sadness, deprivation, and terror, the Pilgrims came together in the late summer of 1621 to celebrate their first harvest and give thanks. According to Of Plymouth Plantation, the accounts of William Bradford, the first governor of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, the first Thanksgiving was described remarkably similar to the holiday that we celebrate today.
A large group of Wampanoag warriors joined the Pilgrim celebration of their harvest. Chief Massasoit and his men brought five deer which they “bestowed on our Governor (Bradford) and upon the Captain (Myles Standish) and others.” Throughout the harvest celebration, the spirit of thankfulness superseded all other attributes. As with today, Thanksgiving has been a time to stop and take stock in the blessings enjoyed by family and community. In addition, American qualities that helped to shape American character such as courage, perseverance, diligence, and piety were on display.
However, in no account does the word “Thanksgiving” appear. From the Pilgrim’s perspective, a day of thanksgiving was not marked by family, fellowship, and feasting, but they regarded it with a religious meaning that set aside time for prayer and worship. The Pilgrims might not have called it a time of thanksgiving, but, instead, emphasized a spirit of gratitude during that occasion. They viewed every day as a thanksgiving day which included the days of the 1621 feast, now known as the first Thanksgiving. But they were most thankful for their opportunity to freely practice their faith. After all, this was the reason that they uprooted themselves from their refuge in Holland and risked everything to settle in the New World.
In 1623, the Pilgrims commemorated their first official “day of thanksgiving.” Apparently, an unexpected rainfall saved their harvest as well as their lives. With no rain, the harvest would have failed, bringing famine to the Plymouth settlement. Without that, they might not have survived. The rain fell “with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God,” according to Bradford’s journal.
New England colonists, sometime in the 1620s, began to designate annual thanksgiving days around times of harvest, generally in the fall, not for a specific blessing, but for continuous blessings. On August 26, 1639, Connecticut was the first to acknowledge Thanksgiving as an annual event. Massachusetts did not acknowledge the custom until later in the seventeenth century. It was then that traditional aspects of Thanksgiving began.
Believe it or not, political controversy surrounded our nation’s first Thanksgiving celebration as was the case in 1789. Before the first federal Congress was about to recess on September 25, 1789, Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey introduced a joint resolution with the Senate recommending that the President request of 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.” This resolution sparked a vigorous debate. After much discussion, the Thanksgiving resolution passed through Congress. George Washington received the resolution on September 28, and issued his now-famous proclamation, designating Thursday, November 26, 1789, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He asked all Americans to render their “sincere and humble thanks to God for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation.”
President Washington’s proclamation was readily acknowledged. Thanksgiving Day was “widely celebrated throughout the nation.” States announced plans for public functions in honor of the day. Churches held religious services soliciting donations for the poor and needy. Washington’s proclamation of 1789 set the standard for similar statements by future Presidents. Of the presidential Founding Fathers, only Thomas Jefferson declined. When questioned, he replied that he did “not consider (himself) authorized” to issue a proclamation because the Constitution prohibits a President from “intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.” Jefferson felt that naming a day of thanksgiving and prayer was a religious matter: therefore, not an appropriate role of the federal government. For the record, his arguments have not held up in succeeding centuries, citing that the First Amendment does not forbid the executive branch from mentioning God.
The American Civil War officially began with the newly-formed Confederate States of America firing upon Ft. Sumter in Charleston, SC Harbor. By then, nearly every state had set aside an annual day of thanksgiving, expressing gratitude for God’s blessings. While most states celebrated in November, several chose October or even December. President Lincoln issued thanksgiving proclamations following Union victories; however, he did not set aside a particular day of thanksgiving, rather encouraged citizens to give thinks at their public places of worship.
Two months following the July 1863 Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln called for a special day of thanksgiving to acknowledge and give thanks to God for the nation’s general blessing. This was the first time since Washington that a president proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving. He made no reference to victory in battle, but called on every American to celebrate this general thanksgiving “with one heart and once voice.”
Enter the “godmother of Thanksgiving.” Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of a popular pre-Civil War magazine, used her position as a platform to campaign for a national Thanksgiving Day. She is better known as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She was an author, editor, social reformer, abolitionist, and an advocate for women’s rights. Universal education was important to her. Hale is considered to be a co-founder of Vasser College, the first women’s college in America.
She was born in 1788 in the village of Newport, New Hampshire to a Revolutionary War veteran and a mother who valued education. Sarah married an attorney from New Hampshire by the name of David Hale. Sarah and David’s quiet evenings consisted of reading the classics, studying language and the sciences. Unfortunately, David died of pneumonia in 1822, while Sarah was pregnant with the couple’s fifth child, leaving her with little means to support the family. However, in time, her anti-slavery novel, Northwood, A Tale of New England, was published, bringing her to the attention of a publishing house in Boston. She became editor of Ladies’ Magazine, a popular women’s magazine that initiated her journalism career.
Eventually, that magazine was bought and then merged with her present company, forming the Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale spent the next forty years as the editor of that magazine which became the most widely read periodical in the country prior to the Civil War.
Hale considered Thanksgiving to be a patriotic holiday, much like the Fourth of July and Washington’s birthday. Her Godey’s Lady’s Book was used as a strong platform to encourage the celebration of Thanksgiving throughout the country. She lobbied for the event to become a national holiday, to be observed at the same time nationwide. Hale chose the date George Washington designated in 1789; the last Thursday in November.
Her national letter-writing campaign included presidents, governors, congressmen, and other influential Americans across the country. She received little response. Despite rejection, she pressed on.
Her magazine editorials reflected her ongoing theme of Thanksgiving having a “deep moral influence” on national character, especially as the country moved toward civil war. Hale strongly believed that a national celebration of Thanksgiving would help to preserve the Union. She stated, “Such social rejoicings tend greatly to expand the generous feelings of our nature and strengthen the bond of union that finds us brothers and sisters in that true sympathy of American patriotism.”
Hale wrote President Lincoln on September 28, 1863, asking him to “issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving” for the last Thursday of November. “Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established,” she insisted. She asked Secretary of State William Seward to “confer with President Lincoln,” regarding her proposition. Once Lincoln made his decision to declare a national day of thanksgiving, he asked Seward to draft a proclamation. The following year, Lincoln, once again, issued a national proclamation naming the last Thursday of November as the date for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Upon her death on April 30, 1879, at the age of 90, Godey’s Lady’s Book printed Hale’s reflections. “This idea was very near to my heart, for I believe that this celebration would be a bond of union throughout our country, as well as a source of happiness in the homes of people.” She continued, saying that her dream of a national Thanksgiving “needs now only the Sanction of Congress to make it permanent.” However, that did not occur until 1941.
The golden age of Thanksgiving, between the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, brought art, literature, and the popular press into the picture. George Henry Durrie’s painting, Home to Thanksgiving, published by Currier & Ives, provided one of the most recognizable Thanksgiving images. The painting poses an idyllic scene that “projects the feeling of nostalgia, family warmth, and happy contentment.”
On August 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt announced his decision to move Thanksgiving Day forward one week. His reasoning revolved around economics as our nation was in the midst of the Great Depression. Since there were five Thursdays in November, President Roosevelt decided to move the holiday up as week to afford shoppers more time to focus on Christmas shopping in the hope this change would encourage Americans to spend more money and benefit the economy. However, since most Americans lacked excess spending power, this change had no tangible effect on the economy. In long run, the President’s edict was not well received by the general public. Disapproval came from nearly every element of society, especially those from Plymouth, Massachusetts. One citizen of Plymouth responded to the change by writing, “We here in Plymouth consider the day sacred. Plymouth and Thanksgiving are almost synonymous and merchants or no merchants I can’t see any reason for changing it.” Other objectors to the date change included college deans and college football coaches as the shift in dates affected academic and football game schedules which the nation’s students and football fans had become accustomed.
Soon, the change became a political “hot potato.” Individual states had to decide for themselves which date to endorse as the official Thanksgiving holiday. The forty-eight states were nearly equally divided on the question. Ohio opted for November 23 despite that fact that public sentiment ran heavily against Roosevelt’s plan. According to the Gallup poll, the findings disclosed that “a majority of Americans—and particularly Republicans—are in favor of letting the nation’s turkeys live a week longer.”
President Roosevelt held to his “New Deal” date for the next two years and the states quietly resigned themselves to the change; however, by 1941, the situation changed and facts turned against him. Results from a survey conducted by the New York City Department of Commerce proved that the early Thanksgiving was not worth the “extra turkey or doll.” Adjoining states observed that the later date was hurting their business. There was no boost in retail sales.
On May 20, 1941, President Roosevelt announced that he was changing Thanksgiving Day back to its original date. He professed that his “experiment” of changing to an earlier date had failed. It was too late for the current year, but in 1942, the Thanksgiving date would revert to the last Thursday of the month. Finally, on December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed a joint congressional resolution making Thanksgiving an official national holiday and mandating that the fourth Thursday in November would be the official date.
American homes have been serving the same Thanksgiving meal, consisting of roast turkey with dressing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and several types of pie, for more than two hundred years. From a recent survey, we learn that 88% of Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving. The same survey found that forty-six million turkeys are consumed.
The Thanksgiving table has represented the natural bounty of the American continent and the energy, diligence, and creativity of the people who have developed its riches. Essentially,Thanksgiving remains a family holiday, but on that day, the definition of family extends to the wider community in which we live.