It’s been my own tradition (for one year anyway) to examine our national legal holidays. A rich tradition of suggestions that we be grateful, suggestions contained in years of presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations, gives perspective to our mandated Thanksgiving legal holiday.
George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789. His message was not about a settlement at established by religious separatists at Plymouth; instead Washington recommended the nation be thankful for the end of war and the establishment of our new government and Constitution. The idea of Thanksgiving, he states, started with a request from Congress:
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."Congress was not unanimous in that request, however. Thanksgiving is heavy with tradition, and tension between the authority of the federal government and that of the states is one of those traditions. Thomas Tudor Tucker, Representative from South Carolina, after questioning whether our new Constitution would earn the people’s gratitude, concluded: "If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States."
The modern Thanksgiving observance, and an unbroken string of 147 consecutive presidential proclamations, begins with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, not the pilgrims, established the tradition of the last Thursday of November as day of thanksgiving and praise “with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.” Prior to Lincoln, Thanksgiving bounced around the calendar with observances from November to January to April. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving was less about harvest and more about perseverance and healing.
Prefacing his 1863 invitation to observe a day of thanksgiving, Lincoln proclaims:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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.Thanksgiving takes place in the context of our national life: Washington and the new government, Lincoln and the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression. The tradition that the Christmas shopping season, so important to retailers to this day, begins with Thanksgiving (well, it used to) confronted the calendar in 1939. In that year, the last Thursday of November, Lincoln’s date, was in fact the fifth Thursday, November 30th. In a controversial move designed to help struggling retailers, Roosevelt moved his Thanksgiving Proclamation up a week to the second-to-last Thursday in November.
In keeping with Representative Tucker’s response to Washington, several states responded to Roosevelt by deciding there should be a Thanksgiving and it should be on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln’s one heart, one voice was lost.
Perspective returned in 1941. On December 26, 1941, the Thanksgiving Day federal holiday was created, with a compromise that it be the fourth, not last, Thursday of November. Only days after America’s entry in to World War II, it seems we got it. We have our differences and our problems, but America has many reasons to be grateful.