Abraham Lincoln played a large part in nationalizing Thanksgiving Day in the year 1863 when he captured the New England spirit of “fruitful fields and healthful skies” and incorporated it in a proclamation which designated the first annual national Thanksgiving Day. But before that, Thanksgiving was an informal event that took place at different times throughout history.
COLONIAL THANKSGIVING DAYS
Governor William Bradford of Massachusets was the founder of the Thanksgiving festival. As early as 1621 he called together early settlers at Plymouth for the purpose of offering thanks to God for the preservation of their lives, food to sustain them, and clothing for their bodies.
A man of strong religious convictions, Governor Bradford continued to call for periodic seasons of “thanksgiving”. One of his earliest written manuscripts was entitled, “God’s Merciful Dealings with us in the Wilderness,” largely invoking God to protect the settlers from Native Americans. This is the antithesis of what school’s largely teach today, that the early settlers invited their Native American friends to join them over a turkey feast.
Fun Fact: Abraham Lincolns first American ancestor, Samuel Lincoln, came to this very wilderness in 1637 and settled not far from Plymouth. As a man of religious inclinations he undoubtedly participated in these early Thanksgiving festivals, and his ancestor would be the one to later make these “thanksgiving” events an official national holiday.
GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE FIRST PROCLAIMED “THANKSGIVING”
During the Revolutionary War Congress recommended days of fasting and prayer throughout the long struggle. When the war ended, President Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a day for the citizens of the new nation to thank God for a constitutional form of government and the blessings which accompanied it.
He called it a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted 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.”
It was not until 1815 that the festival was revived on a national scale when President Madison urged the people to offer thanks on a day set apart by proclamation. It came at the close of the war with England and was a season of prayer and praise for national guidance and peace.
For nearly half a century there were no more thanksgiving proclamations, although governors of many states, at different times, designated days for the annual observance of the feast.
A THANKSGIVING ADVOCATE
The persistent effort of Sarah Joseph Hale, a New England woman, contributed to the building of a favorable public sentiment which eventually found expression in a national Thanksgiving Day observance. For twenty years Mrs. Hale labored diligently to emphasize the significance of a national fall festival. In an 1852 editorial she said:
“Thanksgiving Day is the national pledge of Christian faith in God acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings. The observance of the day has been gradually extending, and for a few years past efforts have been made to have a fixed day which will be universally observed throughout the country. The last Thursday in November was selected as the day, on a whole, most appropriate.”
Ten years later, in 1862, she was still pleading for the national feast day, which, a year before, had been celebrated in twenty-four states and three territories. Although she had approached former Presidents with respect to setting aside a national holiday for praise and prayer, it was not until she appealed to Abraham Lincoln in 1863 that she found one who agreed with her.
THE FIRST ANNUAL “THANKSGIVING”
Lincoln issued his first Presidential proclamation for a day of “public prayer, humiliation, and fasting” to be observed in September 1861. The following year, a Sunday in April was set apart as a day to invoke divine guidance to “hasten the establishment of fraternal relations among all the countries of the world.”
It was in 1863, however, that two national fast days were proclaimed which paved the way for the establishment of the Thanksgiving festival as it is now observed. A special day of prayer was proclaimed for Thursday, April 30, meant for,
“the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former and happy condition of unity and peace.”
Another day, Thursday, August 6, was set apart in which the people were requested to offer thanks for the Gettysburg victory and to call upon God
“to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion.”
It was during this Thanksgiving season for Gettysburg and its victory that Mrs. Hale called to President Lincoln’s attention the need of a Thanksgiving festival to be observed annually on an established day of the year. Lincoln agreed and on October 3, 1863, made a proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November, 1863, the first annual Thanksgiving Day.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATION
Issued October 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 ever-watchful providence of almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war on unequalled 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 manes, 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 has devised, nor has 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, has 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 dwells in the heavens.
And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for singular deliverances and blessing, 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 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.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
Abraham Lincoln, transcribed by William H. Seward, Secretary of State
AN ANNUAL FESTIVAL
There is nothing in the thanksgiving proclamations of George Washington which suggests he wanted Thanksgiving to be an annual event; and President Madison only planned one day of thanksgiving during his entire administration.
However, upon the delivery of Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, contemporary editors of various journals were at once conscious that Thanksgiving Day had evolved into a national holiday. This editorial appearing in Harper’s Weekly confirms this viewpoint:
“IT is a fortunate circumstance that our annual thank-offering festival has become a national affair in which the whole people participate upon a common day…. We forget that we are states and come to offer tribute to God in our capacity as a nation. The festival thus becomes more significant, not only in its altered character but in its larger suggestions and motives.”
It will be observed that in 1864 Lincoln again set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving, confirming the annual observance of the holiday. When Lincoln died, President Johnson followed his lead and upheld the tradition, and so it has been ever since.
THE LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER
There may be those who wonder if Abraham Lincoln used good judgment in the establishment of a fixed date for the annual Thanksgiving observance, and, if he did, whether he selected an appropriate one.
When Abraham Lincoln set apart the last Thursday in November as the day for the festival, he was contributing to an ancient religious sentiment fostered by the apostolic church. A period of solemnity was always observed with the coming of the Advent season.
Fasting and penance had been practiced during the Advent period from time immemorial by the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran, the English, and the Protestant Episcopal churches.
As early as the sixth century, the first Sunday in Advent was made the New Year’s Day of the ecclesiastical calendar, and it always followed the last Thursday in November. The Friday and Saturday preceding Advent Sunday were fast days, so the last Thursday in November became the last day of feasting in the church year. This made the day a day for thanksgiving festivities.
It is not strange that Washington, an Episcopalian, who was acquainted with the church calendar, chose this last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving and praise which he set apart by proclamation in 1789. Lincoln was also familiar with the Episcopal calendar, and when he was urged to designate a day of national thanksgiving, he was given a copy of Washington’s proclamation of 1789. Lincoln then released his proclamation on October 3, the very same day of the month on which Washington issued his, and he also set the date of the national festival the very same day Washington had, on the last Thursday in November.
THE EVOLUTION OF THANKSGIVING
It would be necessary to go back to the beginning of civilization itself to find the first idea of a season of Thanksgiving, but it is not difficult to observe the various stages through which the festival has passed in America from the days of the New England pilgrims up to the present.
The encyclopedia, Americana, defined Thanksgiving Day as follows: “Thanksgiving Day in the United States, an annual festival of thanksgiving for the mercies of the closing year. The day is fixed by proclamation of the President and the governors of States. Since 1863, the Presidents have issued proclamations appointing the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.”
The governors of the various states played a major part in the historic observance of a Thanksigivng Day long before it became a national holiday, and since Lincoln’s monumental proclamation in 1863, the governors have likewise cooperated with the President in setting apart the last Thursday in November for its observance.
The names of five people trace the evolution of Thanksgiving in America:
- Governor Bradford, the founder, representing the colonial era, 1623
- President Washington, first executive to proclaim a national thanksgiving day, 1789
- President Madison, for his revival of the tradition, 1815
- Sara Josepha Hale for her life-long efforts to establish an annual thanksgiving holiday
- President Lincoln who established the First Annual Thanksgiving Day, 1863
QUOTES FROM ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATIONS:
“It is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the supreme government of God; to bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions, in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
– National Fast Day Proclamation, August 12, 1861.
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grow in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God.”
– National Fast Day Proclamation, March 30, 1863.
“Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
– National Fast Day Proclamation, March 30, 1863.
“It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
– National Fast Day Proclamation, March 30, 1863.