Since the settlement of the colonies, Americans were familiar with setting aside days of thanksgiving, prayer, and fasting in response to significant events. In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation designating November 26 of that year as a national day of thanksgiving to recognize the role of providence in creating the new United States and the new federal Constitution. Later, President Abraham Lincoln took steps towards designating it a permanent federal holiday.
Americans traditionally recognize the “first” Thanksgiving as having taken place at Plymouth colony in the autumn of 1621. The Separatist Puritan settlers of Plymouth, known as Pilgrims, held a feast after their first harvest as a way of thanking God for their blessings. Invited to their observance were members of the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, among whom such a harvest celebration was also neither unfamiliar nor uncommon. The 1621 thanksgiving celebration, however, did not become an annual event; rather, residents of Plymouth and the other colonies held days of thanksgiving and fasting over the years, at different times of year for a variety of reasons.
During the American Revolution, the practice continued. Colonial legislatures set aside days of prayer to recognize military victories against the British army. After British General John Burgoyne surrendered to the Americans at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777, the Continental Congress suggested that a national day be set aside to recognize the victory. Commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington agreed, proclaiming December 18, 1777 as the first national thanksgiving day. The Continental Congress supported similar thanksgiving proclamations through 1784.
In 1789, Representative Elias Boudinot from New Jersey presented a resolution requesting that Congress persuade the now-President Washington to declare a thanksgiving observance in honor of the creation of the new United States Constitution. Congress agreed and passed the resolution creating a joint committee to make their request to the president.
Washington issued a proclamation on October 3, 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 as a national day of thanks. In his proclamation, Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from the Almighty’s care of Americans prior to the Revolution, assistance to them in achieving independence, and help in establishing the constitutional government. Not ignoring the authority of state governments, Washington distributed his proclamation to the governors, requesting that they announce and observe the day within their states. Newspapers throughout the country subsequently published the proclamation and public celebrations were held. Washington himself marked the day by attending services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, and by donating beer and food to imprisoned debtors in the city.
The 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, however, did not establish a permanent federal holiday. Washington issued another proclamation in February 1795 to recognize the defeat of a taxation rebellion in Pennsylvania. Later presidents, including John Adams and James Madison, declared days of thanksgiving. But it was not until the Civil War of the 1860s that President Lincoln initiated a regular observance of Thanksgiving in the United States.
T. K. Byron, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History
Dalton State College