(WHTM) — On this day in 1789, President George Washington issued his first proclamation of a National Day of Thanksgiving for Thursday, Nov. 26, in honor of the establishment of the new Constitution, which went into effect on March 9, 1789.
This was by no means the first Thanksgiving to be declared. In fact, answering the question of “When was the first Thanksgiving in America?” can be a horrendous muddle.
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If you were brought up in my generation (I’m a baby boomer, in case you didn’t know) you learned in school that the first Thanksgiving took place in the autumn of 1621, celebrated by the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and local Native Americans.
(The Native Americans were members of the Wampanoag Tribe. They still live in Massachusetts, a detail which for some reason kept being left out of our 1950s textbooks.)
But the Thanksgiving feast we all know about didn’t become any sort of annual tradition. In truth, days of thanksgiving were a regular thing throughout the colonies to note significant happenings with different ways of giving thanks, from feasting to fasting.
The first “National Thanksgiving” was declared during the Revolutionary War. The proclamation was made on Nov. 1, 1777, following the American victory at Saratoga, calling for a day of thanksgiving on Thursday, Dec. 18. It was issued by the Continental Congress, which was then sitting in York, Pennsylvania. But again, this was a once-and-done; the Continental (later the Confederation) Congress proclaimed thanksgivings through 1784, but no national holiday evolved from them.
This brings us to Oct. 3, 1789, and Washington’s proclamation of a day of thanksgiving “…to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor” both in allowing the formation of the United States and 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.”
This was the first proclamation of thanksgiving by a President of the United States and the first from the new national government. Keeping in mind the state governments, Washington sent the proclamation to the governors and asked them to announce it.
But again, it did not become a regular annual holiday. Some states instituted annual Thanksgiving, but they celebrated on different days.
Then on Oct. 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for a national day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. In 1870, Congress passed legislation making Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Independence Day national holidays.
But setting the date of Thanksgiving was still the discretion of the President. For the most part, this was the fourth Thursday in November, following in the steps of Lincoln. It didn’t become the law of the land until Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill making it so in 1941. (This was after Roosevelt tried to move it forward a week, which went over like a lead balloon.)
All of this makes asking the question “Which was the first Thanksgiving?” much like asking “Which is the most essential ingredient in a stew?” Best to just enjoy the finished product…
Here is George Washington’s proclamation of Oct. 3, 1789:
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to 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 shewn 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 encrease 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.