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Humbled Before God: Two Presidents Established Thanksgiving

According to the Mount Ver­non Ladies’ Association, a private, non-profit organization which owns and maintains George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, President Wash­ington first mentioned the possibility of a national Thanksgiving Day in a confidential letter to James Madison in August 1789, just months after tak­ing office. In the letter, our first presi­dent asked for advice on approaching the Senate about proclaiming “a day of thanksgiving.”

It was not the first time he had implemented such an idea. During the Revolutionary War, he would order special thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles, and he publicly endorsed efforts by the Con­tinental Congress to proclaim days of thanks, usually in recognition of mili­tary victories and alliances.

By the end of September 1789, a resolution had been introduced to the House of Representatives requesting that “a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving.” Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving Proclama­tion within days. It read:

Thanksgiving Proclamation of 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 [sic] 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.
George Washington

(Information provided by mount­vernon.org)

Renewing a Holiday, Humbling a Nation
But Thanksgiving Day did not become an annually observed national holiday until writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale prevailed on President Abraham Lincoln to relaunch the holiday. As early as 1827, Hale wrote essays calling for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. In 1863, a full 36 years after her campaign began, she wrote to Pres. Lincoln asking him to create the holiday, explaining: “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increas­ing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive [sic] fixa­tion, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

Lincoln had issued nine similar proclamations during the Civil War, ordering government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiv­ing. Northern states also celebrated thanksgiving days on various different days. Lincoln granted Hale’s request in a proclamation penned by Secretary of State William Seward and signed by Lincoln. A year later the original manuscript was sold to benefit Union troops. It read:

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation.
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 [sic], have not arrested the plough, the shut­tle or the ship; the axe 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 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 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 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, 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.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Thanksgiving Timeline
1621: The Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians hold a feast at Plymouth Colony (Massachusetts).
1777: All 13 Colonies hold thanksgiving celebrations.
1789: Pres. George Washington declares November 26 a national day of thanksgiving.
1815: Pres. James Madison declares a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.
1827: Sarah Josepha Hale begins writing essays calling for an annual national celebration of thanksgiving.
1863: Pres. Lincoln issues a proclamation calling for the last Thursday of November to be set aside as a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise.”
1920: The first Thanksgiving parade is held in Philadelphia.
1924: The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is held in New York City.
1941: After altering the date of Thanksgiving, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt reestablishes the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.
1947: Pres. Harry Truman pardons a turkey that is marked for Thanksgiving dinner at the White House.


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