America’s Thanksgiving is rooted as much in adversity as it is in prosperity. We often need to be reminded to give thanks in difficult times when the nation is shackled with predicaments and divisions. Thus, the holiday was conceived for Americans out of the necessity to remember, not necessarily out of gratitude for our obvious blessings.
We all know about the “first” day of thanksgiving following the Puritan harvest in 1621, according to pilgrim lore, but the call to give thanks followed many different paths thereafter.
In the so-called New World, the first officially designated observance on record of a day of thanksgiving was June 29, 1676, at Charlestown, Massachusetts. It was proclaimed by the town’s governing council to bolster the locals while dealing with hardships and conflict with the local indigenous population, referred to in the decree as the “Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land.”
During the 1700s, many American colonies observed days of thanksgiving, but these were mostly somber events marked by fasting and prayer, not feasting and merriment, to achieve “a penitent confession of our sins, and humble supplication for pardon, through the merits of our Savior,” according to the U.S. Continental Congress in its 1778 decree.
Later, days of thanksgiving were declared to honor military victories, important state events or bountiful harvests. The first notable thanksgiving celebrated by this new country occurred in December 1777, when a day was set aside to give thanks for the American victory over the British at Saratoga, New York. In 1789, President George Washington declared Nov. 26 of that year as “A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer,” decreed in part to shore up the spirits of the struggling young nation.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln established what is now recognized as the first national holiday of Thanksgiving. In the depths of the Civil War, he was encouraged by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (otherwise famous for writing the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” according to WomensHistory.org) to have a “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” Lincoln designated the fourth Thursday of each November for this purpose. He asked Americans to use the day to take stock of their blessings, to renew their faiths, to remember those who had suffered in the war and to “fervently implore 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 ...” (It should be noted that Confederate President Jefferson Davis also issued thanksgiving proclamations for his countrymen during the Civil War.) It was the second time that year that Lincoln had declared a day of thanksgiving, but this decree established the holiday that we know today. There have been presidential decrees every year since.
Thanksgiving was fixed at Lincoln’s proposed date until 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt moved the observance to the third Thursday in November as a means of extending the holiday shopping season and boosting a national economy struggling to escape the Great Depression. But his decree sparked resistance, with many states refusing to recognize the new date. In 1941, Roosevelt relented and moved the holiday back to the fourth Thursday of November. (For the record, retailers and shoppers seemed to deal with it all just fine.) That year, Thanksgiving was observed less than two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the grim shadow of war engulfed the nation.
The holiday has remained in place ever since.
Lincoln’s holiday came at a momentous time in America’s history. On this Thanksgiving eve, we offer you his 1863 proclamation, which shows both the war-weariness that afflicted this land, and the hope of peace and reunification amid a conflict to which more souls would be sacrificed before it was over. The decree established the modern American Thanksgiving, and we have been thankful for it ever since.
Washington, Oct. 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards 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 even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre 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 defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had 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 battle-field; 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 hath devised nor hath 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, hath 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 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 (Nov. 26), as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, 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 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, tranquillity 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 3d day of October A.D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
— Abraham Lincoln