Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thanksgiving Proclamations: 1776 to 1798

Thanksgiving Day Proclamations

United Colonies and States of America




A Brief History
By: Stanley L. Klos


The ritual of Official U.S. Government Thanksgiving Proclamations are deeply ingrained in the laws and traditions of the United States of America. The first United Colonies "Thanksgiving Day" can be traced back to the Fast Day Proclamation of the United Colonies of America issued by John Hancock and the Continental Congress in March 1776. 


John Hancock, President


The first Presidential Thanksgiving Day, however, was proclaimed by U.S. Continental Congress and executed by Henry Laurens on November 1, 1777.

In September of 1777 the war for Independence was going very badly for the United States. President John Hancock and his Continental Congress were forced to flee Philadelphia a second time winding up in the small hamlet of York-town (York, PA) 102 miles west of Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress had lost New York City, Fort Ticonderoga and their capitol, Philadelphia, to the British forces. Great Britain’s northern army, under the command of General John Burgoyne, was marching down the Hudson Valley to cut off New England from the Middle Atlantic States. These were perilous days but Congress pressed on with their work conducting what increasingly appeared to be a failing war effort.



The Delegates knew that a French Alliance and monetary aid would not be forthcoming without a constitution forming a nation out of 13 independent States. The work in the York Courthouse was tedious in 1777 as the delegates were in the final stages of formulating the first U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.



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John Hancock wrote to his wife Dorothy during this period:
I sat in the Chair yesterday & Conducted the Business Eight hours, which is too much, and after that had the Business of my office to attend to as usual … I cannot Stand it much longer in this way.

John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams of his tenure in York:
War has no Charms for me … If I live much longer in Banishment, I shall scarcely know my own Children. Tell my little ones, that if they will be very good, Pappa will come home.
Charles Carroll, a Maryland Delegate initially wrote of his York experience that
The Congress still continues the same noisy, empty & talkative assembly it always was since I have known it. No progress has been made in the Confederation tho' all seem desirous of forming one. A good confederation. I am convinced would give us great strength & new vigor. This State is in a great degree disaffected, & the well affected are inactive & supine. This supiness & inactivity I attribute to the government & to the men who govern.
On October 20, 1777 Congress learned of General Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. The British plan to sever the United States by controlling the Hudson River Valley had failed and this resulted in the capture of General Burgoyne and his 6,000 troops. This was the news Congress and their Foreign French Commissioner, Benjamin Franklin, desperately needed to convince France to form an alliance with the United States. Versailles, however, would require more than just this victory to form an alliance. A constitution was needed to insure that France would enact an alliance with a sovereign nation and not 13 independent states.




Work on the Articles of Confederation accelerated under what would be the last few days of John Hancock’s Presidency. Key amendments and changes to the Articles were agreed on in the sessions of October 27, 28, and even the 29th when John Hancock tendered his official resignation as President.



On October 31, 1777, the Saratoga Convention's full terms of surrender were reported to congress. The spirit of the delegates soared as the defeat of General Burgoyne's army was far more complete than anyone anticipated. The following day Henry Laurens, from South Carolina and a leader in the framing the Articles of Confederation was elected the fourth President of a very festive Continental Congress. 



Laurens first official act as President was to Proclaim a Day of Thanksgiving. In his first letter to the States President Laurens wrote:
Dear Sir, The Arms of the United States of America having been blessed in the present Campaign with remarkable Success, Congress have Resolved to recommend that one day, Thursday the 18th December next be Set apart to be observed by all Inhabitants throughout these States for a General thanksgiving to Almighty God. And I have it in command to transmit to you the inclosed extract from the minutes of Congress for that purpose. [v]
Henry Laurens, President

Constitutional deliberations resumed on November 10th. Working feverishly each day until the morning of November 15th, the Delegates approve the first U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.



Since then the ritual of Presidents declaring Thanksgiving Days for fasting, prayer and thanks are bountiful in U.S. history. 



President John Jay, who succeeded Laurens issued a 1779 Proclamation that set aside "... the first Thursday in May next, to be a day of fasting, Thanksgiving humiliation and prayer to Almighty God, that he will be pleased to avert those impending calamities which we have but too well deserved."


President Samuel Huntington in the Spring of 1781 proclaimed 

"... that Thursday the third day of May next, may be observed as a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer, that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and through the merits of our blessed Savior  obtain pardon and forgiveness: that it may please him to inspire our rulers with wisdom and incorruptible integrity, And it is recommended to all the people of these states, to assemble for public worship, and abstain from labor on the said day."


Articles of Confederation and Constitution of 1787 language establishing their respective offices of President.

President of the United States in Congress Assembled Thomas McKean in the Fall of 1781, after learning of Washington's victory at Yorktown proclaimed, 


United States in Congress Assembled 1781

"It is therefore recommended to the several states to set apart the 13th day of December next, to be religiously observed as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer; that all the people may assemble on that day, with grateful hearts, to celebrate the praises of our gracious Benefactor ..."


President John Hanson on November 28, 1782 over news the Treaty of Paris negotiations were fruitful proclaimed that 


"... the observation of the last Thursday, in the 28 day of November next, as a day of solemn thanksgiving to God for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify their gratitude to God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness." 


On September 28, 1789, George Washington, in his first term as U.S. President, was presented with a resolution by the First Federal Bicameral Congress asking that he recommend to the nation a day of thanksgiving.  A few days later, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a "Day of Publick Thanksgiving," which was the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the Constitution of 1787: 


 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-- 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. 


George Washington’s First Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. In this signed, handwritten document, Washington thanks “providence” for bringing America through the Revolutionary War, and for the chance “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...” In one of the final acts of the historic first session of the first Federal Congress sitting in New York, Congress had requested that the president issue such a proclamation. On September 28, 1789, the day Congress passed the Thanksgiving Proclamation resolution, the proposed Bill of Rights passed its final Congressional hurdle. Two days later, Washington sent copies of the Bill of Rights to the states for ratification, and the next day issued this Proclamation.  - Image Courtesy of Seth Kaller

Presidential Proclamations of Thanksgiving continued to be issued, at various dates, but the days and even months of the celebrations varied. 

President Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to standardize the date,  re-issued the call for Thanksgiving Day to be held on the last Thursday of November as originally proposed  President John Hanson's United States in Congress Assembled.  


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 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 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.






April 10, 1862
Abraham Lincoln 
Proclamation - Day of Public Thanksgiving for Civil War  Victories
July 15, 1863
Abraham Lincoln 
Proclamation  - Day of Thanksgiving, Praise, and Prayer, August 6, 1863
October 3, 1863
Abraham Lincoln 
Proclamation  - Thanksgiving Day, 1863
October 20 1864
Abraham Lincoln 
Proclamation  - Thanksgiving Day, 1864


Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis was also no stranger to Thanksgiving proclamation having  given thanks for victories in battle in 1862 and had, early in 1861, proclaimed a Day of Fasting & Humiliation.  Shortly, after the Battle of Gettysburg President Davis issued a second Proclamation calling for  a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer



PROCLAMATION BY THE PRESIDENT

The Confederate States - Again do I call upon the people of the Confederacy -- a people who believe that the Lord reigneth, and that His overruling Providence ordereth all things -- to unite in prayer and humble submission under His chastening hand, and to beseech His favor on our suffering country.

It is meet that when trials and reverses befall us we should seek to take home to our hearts and consciences the lessons which they teach, and profit by the self-examination for which they prepare us. Had not our success on land and sea made us self-confident and forgetful of our reliance on Him? Had not the love of lucre eaten like a gangrene into the very heart of the land, converting too many of us into worshippers of gain and rendering them unmindful of their duty to their country, to their fellow-men, and to their God? Who, then, will presume to complain that we have been chastened, or to despair of our just cause and the protection of our Heavenly Father?

Let us rather receive in humble thankfulness the lesson which He has taught in our recent reverses, devoutly acknowledging that to Him, and not to our own feeble arms, are due the honor and the glory of victory; that from Him, in His paternal providence, come the anguish and sufferings of defeat, and that, whether in victory or defeat, our humble supplications are due to His footstool.

Now, therefore, I, JEFFERSON DAVIS, President of these Confederate States, do issue this, my Proclamation, setting apart Friday, the 21st day of August ensuing, as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer; and I do hereby invite the people of the Confederate States to repair, on that day, to their respective places of public worship, and to unite in supplication for the favor and protection of that God who has hitherto conducted us safely through all the dangers that environed us.

[a.s.]

In faith whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and the seal of the Confederate States, at Richmond, this twenty-fifth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three.

By the President: JEFFERSON DAVIS.

J.P. BENJAMIN, Secretary of State.





The National Archives, on their website,  explains how this date changed in 1939:
In 1939, however, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month. Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November. As a result of the proclamation, 32 states issued similar proclamations while 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. For two years two days were celebrated as Thanksgiving - the President and part of the nation celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November, while the rest of the country celebrated it the following week.
To end the confusion, Congress decided to set a fixed-date for the holiday. On October 6, 1941, the House passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day. The Senate, however, amended the resolution establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday, which would take into account those years when November has five Thursdays. The House agreed to the amendment, and President Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941, thus establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.


H.J. Res. 41, Making the Last Thursday in November a Legal Holiday, October 6, 1941, RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Center for Legislative Archives.
Senate Amendments to H.J. Res. 41, Making the Fourth Thursday in November a Legal Holiday, December 9, 1941, RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Center for Legislative Archives.


President  Franklin D. Roosevelt,  during the depths of the Great Depression, issued the first  third Thursday of November Thanksgiving proclaiming:

 I , Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do set aside and appoint Thursday, the thirtieth day of November 1933, to be a Day of Thanksgiving for all our people. May we on that day in our churches and in our homes give humble thanks for the blessings bestowed upon us during the year past by Almighty God. 





This site has reproduced  most of the early Presidential Thanksgiving and Fast Day Proclamations.  To view them click here.

White House Photo: November 19th, 1963, The President Receives Thanksgiving Turkey from Poultry and Egg National Board, Accompanied by Senator Everett M. Dirkson.


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By: Stanley Yavneh Klos

  • First United American Republic: United Colonies of North America: 13 British Colonies United in Congress was founded by 12 colonies on September 5th, 1774 (Georgia joined in 1775)  and governed through a British Colonial Continental Congress.  Peyton Randolph and George Washington served, respectively, as the Republic's first President and Commander-in-Chief;
  • Second United American Republic: The United States of America: 13 Independent States United in Congress was founded by 12 states on July 2nd, 1776 (New York abstained until July 8th), and governed through the United States Continental CongressJohn Hancock and George Washington served, respectively, as the Republic's first President and Commander-in-Chief; 
  • Third United American Republic: The United States of America: A Perpetual Union was founded by 13 States on March 1st, 1781, with the enactment of the first U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and governed through the United States in Congress Assembled.  Samuel Huntington and George Washington served, respectively, as the Republic's first President and Commander-in-Chief; 
  • Fourth United American Republic: The United States of America: We the People  was formed by 11 states on March 4th, 1789 (North Carolina and Rhode Island joined in November 1789 and May 1790, respectively), with the enactment of the U.S. Constitution of 1787. The fourth and current United States Republic governs through  the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in Congress Assembled, the U.S. President and Commander-in-Chief, and the U.S. Supreme Court.  George Washington served as the Republic's first President and Commander-in-Chief.


The First United American Republic
Continental Congress of the United Colonies Presidents 
Sept. 5, 1774 to July 1, 1776


September 5, 1774
October 22, 1774
October 22, 1774
October 26, 1774
May 20, 1775
May 24, 1775
May 25, 1775
July 1, 1776



The Second United American Republic
Continental Congress of the United States Presidents 
July 2, 1776 to February 28, 1781

July 2, 1776
October 29, 1777
November 1, 1777
December 9, 1778
December 10, 1778
September 28, 1779
September 29, 1779
February 28, 1781


Commander-in-Chief United Colonies & States of America

George Washington: June 15, 1775 - December 23, 1783



The Third United American Republic
Presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled
March 1, 1781 to March 3, 1789

March 1, 1781
July 6, 1781
July 10, 1781
Declined Office
July 10, 1781
November 4, 1781
November 5, 1781
November 3, 1782
November 4, 1782
November 2, 1783
November 3, 1783
June 3, 1784
November 30, 1784
November 22, 1785
November 23, 1785
June 5, 1786
June 6, 1786
February 1, 1787
February 2, 1787
January 21, 1788
January 22, 1788
January 21, 1789



The Fourth United American Republic
Presidents of the United States of America








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