The uniquely American observance of Thanksgiving was first proclaimed as a national holiday in 1789 by the first president elected under the new Constitution.
While the holiday itself has now been long canonized in both custom and law, George Washington’s formal proclamation is a relic of infrequent review in modern times. As we prepare to gather family and friends round our tables and turkeys next Thursday, here’s a look back at Washington’s enduring words, with annotations.
New York, 3 October 1789
By the President of the United States of America. A Proclamation.
New York was the nation’s capital at the time. The first Congress had just completed its first session at Federal Hall there, where Washington had been inaugurated five months earlier.
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—
A member of the Anglican Church, Washington (who was generally private about his religious beliefs) attended public services regularly while president.
[A]nd 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.”
The congressional joint committee was introduced in the House of Representatives on Sept. 25 by Elias Boudinot of New Jersey. Though not a household name among founding fathers today, Boudinot was well-known and respected among colonial statesmen. Washington would later appoint him as director of the U.S. Mint.
Congress didn’t bless Boudinot’s resolution with resounding unity. Some legislators voiced opposition to federal overreach by a national proclamation that more appropriately fell to state authority.
The resolution carried, and the influential patriot Roger Sherman of Connecticut—the only man to sign the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution—was appointed to the committee to approach the president.
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 …
The date Washington named happened to be the last Thursday in November, but he didn’t specify it as such. Abraham Lincoln did that in 1863.
Lincoln’s calendar convention held until November 1939, which featured five Thursdays. Hoping to spur economic activity, Franklin Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving would be moved up from the last to the fourth Thursday to expand Christmas shopping.
Tampering with tradition proved wildly unpopular; many states simply ignored his declaration. In response to the “Franksgiving” fiasco, Congress codified the fourth Thursday designation in legislation in 1941.
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—
The Revolutionary War formally concluded on Sept. 3, 1783.
[F]or the great degree of tranquillity, 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—
The U.S. Constitution had been ratified a year earlier, but operations under the new government didn’t begin until March 4, 1789, when the First Congress convened.
[F]or 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.
Just a week before, the amendment guaranteeing the blessing of religious liberty had been approved by Congress as part of what would become the Bill of Rights.
[A]nd 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—
Notice Washington’s nod to John Adams’ famous quote (“a nation of laws, not of men”).
[T]o 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 increase 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.
Be thankful next week.