The Pilgrims inaugural Thanksgiving in 1621 was followed by sporadic national Thanksgiving celebrations but more common celebrations at the state level. The switch to a standard Thanksgiving holiday at the federal level came about in the 1800s.
Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation
Much of the credit for this adoption may be attributed to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book (a popular magazine containing poetry, art work, and articles by America’s leading authors). She persistently campaigned for an established national Thanksgiving, such as in this 1852 editorial:
The American people have two peculiar festivals, each connected with their history, and therefore of great importance in giving power and distinctness to their nationality. The Fourth of July Is the exponent of independence and civil freedom. Thanksgiving Day is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings. These two festivals should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits of thought as inseparable from American life.1
For two decades, Hale promoted the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day,2 writing president after president. Abraham Lincoln eventually responded to this persistence in 1863 by setting aside the last Thursday of that November. The Thanksgiving proclamation issued by Lincoln at that time was remarkable not only for its strong religious content but also for its timing. It was delivered in the midst of the darkest days of the Civil War, after the Union had lost multiple battles in the first three years of that conflict. Yet, despite those dark circumstances, Lincoln called Americans to give thanks that:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to invite and provoke the aggressions of foreign States, 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.3
In that proclamation, President Lincoln also noted that:
The 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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . 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.4
Presidents After Lincoln
Over the seventy-five years following Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, presidents faithfully followed Lincoln’s precedent, annually declaring a national Thanksgiving Day. The date, however, of the celebrations varied widely from proclamation to proclamation.
Among the many Thanksgiving proclamations in the WallBuilders’ collection is an 1887 handwritten one issued by President Grover Cleveland in which he once again emphasized God’s hand:
The goodness and the mercy of God, which have followed the American people during all the days of the past year claim our grateful recognition and humble acknowledgment. By His omnipotent power He has protected us from war and pestilence and from every national calamity; by His gracious favor the earth has yielded a generous return to the labor of the husbandman, and every path of honest toil has led to comfort and contentment; by His loving kindness the hearts of our people have been replenished with fraternal sentiment and patriotic endeavor, and by His Fatherly guidance we have been directed in the way of national prosperity.5
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the precedent of celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of each November. And in 1941, Congress permanently established that day as the national Thanksgiving holiday.6
During World War II, (which would eventually claim the lives of over 400,000 Americans7), President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a Thanksgiving proclamation for November 1944 asking Americans to be thankful . . .
For the preservation of our way of life from the threat of destruction; for the unity of spirit which has kept our Nation strong; for our abiding faith in freedom; and for the promise of an enduring peace.8
President George W. Bush summarized this history of Thanksgiving proclamations and celebrations in his 2007 Thanksgiving proclamation:
Our country was founded by men and women who realized their dependence on God and were humbled by His providence and grace. The early explorers and settlers who arrived in this land gave thanks for God’s protection and for the extraordinary natural abundance they found. Since the first National Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington, Americans have come together to offer thanks for our many blessings.9
As Americans continue to “Be thankful in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18 NLT), our Thanksgiving celebrations should include reflections on all the reasons to be truly thankful to God for His many blessings. Perhaps the four items George Washington mentioned in America’s original federal Thanksgiving proclamation in 178910 should be the basis for future Thanksgiving commemorations:
- Acknowledge the providence of Almighty God;
- Obey His will;
- Be grateful for His benefits; and
- Humbly implore His protection and favor.
For additional articles on Thanksgiving, see:
- Tim Barton, “Give Thanks for America This Thanksgiving,” Epoch Times, https://www.theepochtimes.com/opinion/give-thanks-for-america-this-thanksgiving-4101383
- Tim Barton, “Let’s Thank the Pilgrims for Defeating Socialism This Thanksgiving,” Todd Starnes,
- Dr. Paul Jehle, “The Meaning of Thanksgiving,” Plymouth Rock Foundation, https://wallbuilders.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/12/TheMeaningofThanksgiving.pdf
See previous articles in this series on Thanksgiving: “The Pilgrims Thanksgiving,” https://dev.americasheritage.com/resource/the-pilgrims-thanksgiving/ and “The Founders Thanksgivings,” https://dev.americasheritage.com/resource/the-founders-thanksgivings/.
1 “Editor’s Table,” Godey’s Lady’s Book (Philadelphia: October 1852), 388, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Godey_s_Lady_s_Book_and_Ladies_American/3Y9MAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA388&printsec=frontcover.
2 Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, eds. James Grant Wilson & John Fiske (New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1888), III:35, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39076005094201&seq=55.
3 Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation for Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863, The Works of Abraham Lincoln, eds. John H. Clifford & Marion M. Miller (New York: University Society Inc, 1908), VI:160-161, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Works_of_Abraham_Lincoln/v5B14zepO3MC?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA160&printsec=frontcover; Abraham Lincoln, “Thanksgiving Proclamation,” October 3, 1863, WallBuilders, https://dev.americasheritage.com/resource/proclamation-thanksgiving-day-1863/.
4 Lincoln, Proclamation for Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863, Works of Lincoln, eds. Clifford & Miller (1908), VI:160-161, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Works_of_Abraham_Lincoln/v5B14zepO3MC?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA160&printsec=frontcover; Lincoln, “Thanksgiving Proclamation,” October 3, 1863, WallBuilders, https://dev.americasheritage.com/resource/proclamation-thanksgiving-day-1863/.
5 Grover Cleveland, “Thanksgiving Proclamation,” issued October 25, 1887, WallBuilders, https://dev.americasheritage.com/resource/proclamation-thanksgiving-day-1887/.
6 “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving,” The National Archives, accessed August 31, 2023, https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving/; “Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations 1940-1949: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman,” Pilgrim Hall Museum, https://www.pilgrimhall.org/pdf/TG_Presidential_Thanksgiving_Proclamations_1940_1949.pdf, Proclamation 2571, November 11, 1942, referring to a “joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, which designates the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day.”
7 “WWII Memorial Registry,” accessed August 31, 2023, https://wwiiregistry.abmc.gov/.
8 Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Thanksgiving Proclamation,” issued November 1, 1944, WallBuilders, https://dev.americasheritage.com/resource/proclamation-thanksgiving-day-1944/.
9 George W. Bush, “Thanksgiving Day, 2007,” issued November 15, 2007, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2007/11/20071115-5.html.
10 George Washington, Proclamation for a National Thanksgiving on October 3, 1789, Writings of George Washington, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Russell, Odiorne and Metcalf, 1838), XII:119; George Washington, “Thanksgiving Proclamation,” issued on October 3, 1789, WallBuilders, https://dev.americasheritage.com/resource/proclamation-thanksgiving-day-1789/.