After the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving in 1621, fall harvest celebrations continued to be an annual tradition in New England. The custom of having a feast after a successful harvest was an ancient one in England, and one that colonists in the northeast perpetuated. After American independence, these Yankee settlers brought the tradition of Thanksgiving with them when they moved west and settled new territory.
By 1840, Thanksgiving was widely celebrated in New England and the Midwest. It was the custom for the governor of each state to make a proclamation setting aside a day for feasting and Thanksgiving. Although this day usually occurred on a Thursday in November, there was no fixed date set for Thanksgiving. It could and did happen any time from September to January. In Illinois, the first statewide Thanksgiving was proclaimed by Governor Thomas Ford and held on Thursday, December 29, 1842.
|Before the Civil War, days of Thanksgiving were declared by the governors of individual states. Many Southern governors declined to do so, believing Thanksgiving to be a “Yankee” holiday.|
This was in stark contrast to America’s only two national holidays at the time, Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday. Both of these holidays were civic, not religious, occasions, characterized by boozy street festivals that often got rowdy and out of hand. Yet the growing American middle class, who idealized home and family, longed for a holiday that was religious and family-focused.
Enter 74-year-old Sarah Josepha Hale. In 1837, the widowed mother of five became the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and thus one of the most influential arbiters of American culture. As a native of New England, Hale had grown up with the tradition of keeping Thanksgiving. She envisioned setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving holiday, “…when the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the laughter of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart.”
|Sarah Josepha Hale|
While several states readily adopted the custom of keeping Thanksgiving, many more, particularly in the South, had deep reservations. In 1853, Gov. Joseph Johnson of Virginia declined to declare the day of Thanksgiving on the grounds that it was a religious holiday, citing separation of church and state. In 1856 his successor, Henry A. Wise, wrote to Hale that he would not be declaring a day of Thanksgiving because “this theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbling letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.”
By “other causes,” Wise meant the cause of abolitionism. Despite Hale’s belief that a national Thanksgiving holiday would help to unify America’s growing sectional divisions, many in the South identified Thanksgiving as a “Yankee” or “abolitionist” holiday and wanted nothing to do with it. Governor Price of Missouri skipped Thanksgiving in 1855, leading the St. Louis News to wonder, “Does he think Thanksgiving Day a Yankee institution, full of fanaticism, and, therefore, dangerous for the Southern people to meddle with?”
This association of Thanksgiving with the North begs the question of why, of the five presidents Hale petitioned, it was Abraham Lincoln who finally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Was it truly a day of praise and healing in the midst of the bitter Civil War?
President Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation:
October 3, 1863By the President of the United StatesA ProclamationThe year that is drawing toward 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 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 provoke their aggressions, 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.
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 Stated 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.
At any rate, once Lincoln established the practice of declaring a national day of Thanksgiving, his successors kept up the tradition. The last Thursday of November was the customary date. In 1939, however, November had five Thursdays, and President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. In 1941, Congress passed a law that permanently established Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday occurring on the fourth Thursday of November.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor, Erika Holst, Curator of Collections, Springfield [Illinois] Art Association.