The most memorable Thanksgiving story of Calvin Coolidge’s presidency (1923-1929) involved his turning a raccoon which had been sent to him for the purpose of becoming Thanksgiving dinner into a White House pet. I covered that 1926 Thanksgiving story in these pages. Today, I will cover in detail then-President Coolidge’s November 5, 1923 Thanksgiving Proclamation, the first of his presidency.
The Proclamation is not only interesting because Coolidge was an eloquent writer, as we have recounted here at The New Leaf Journal, but also because of the circumstances in which it was issued. Coolidge assumed the presidency on August 2, 1923, upon the death of former President Warren G. Harding, and less than two months before he issued his first Thanksgiving Proclamation. The matter of President Harding’s death, and several others, would appear in Coolidge’s first and longest Proclamation.
The tradition of Thanksgiving Proclamations
The United States has a long tradition of Presidential proclamations of a day of Thanksgiving. The tradition began with George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued in the first year of his presidency. I re-printed Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in its entirety and wrote a bit about some congressional objections to the concept. Despite a few heartfelt constitutional objections to a national day of Thanksgiving, the tradition continued. Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, which was written by then-Secretary of State William Seward, established Thanksgiving as a fixed national holiday. Since then, Presidents have dutifully issued Thanksgiving Proclamations – usually with little fanfare or controversy save for some debate over the date triggered by then-President Franklin Roosevelt moving the date in 1939.
Calvin Coolidge’s 1923 Thanksgiving Proclamation
In the following sections, I will work through President Coolidge’s relatively short 1923 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Presidential Proclamation 1680, piece by piece, quoting and discussing each section. You can follow along with the original courtesy of UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.
Introduction the purpose of Thanksgiving
President Coolidge began by describing the history and purpose of a day of Thanksgiving:
The American people, from their earliest days, have observed the wise custom of acknowledging each year the bounty with which divine Providence has favored them. In the beginnings, this acknowledgment was a voluntary return of thanks by the community for the fruitfulness of the harvest. Though our mode of life has greatly changed, this custom has always survived. It has made thanksgiving day not only one of the oldest but one of the most characteristic observances of our country. On that day, in home and church, in family and in public gatherings, the whole nation has for generations paid the tribute due from grateful hearts for blessings bestowed.
President Coolidge tied the tradition of Thanksgiving to the earliest days of the republic. I noted in my post on Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789 that the Thanksgiving tradition “predated the U.S. Constitution.” Coolidge’s presidency came during a period of technological advancement and quality-of-life improvements, which he acknowledged in noting that “our mode of life has greatly changed…” However, notwithstanding differences in how people lived in 1923 vs 1789, Coolidge observed that the tradition of setting aside a day of Thanksgiving endured, causing it to become “one of the most characteristic observances of our country.”
Coolidge then expanded on the purpose of observing Thanksgiving:
To center our thought in this way upon the favor which we have been shown has been altogether wise and desirable. It has given opportunity justly to balance the good and the evil which we have experienced. In that we have never failed to find reasons for being grateful to God for a generous preponderance of the good. Even in the least propitious times, a broad contemplation of our whole position has never failed to disclose overwhelming reasons for thankfulness. Thus viewing our situation, we have found warrant for a more hopeful and confident attitude toward the future.
President Coolidge described Thanksgiving as not only a day for gratitude, but also reflection: “It has given opportunity justly to balance the good and the evil we have experienced.” He ascribed to Thanksgiving the benefit of giving America as a country the opportunity to weigh the good and the bad and ultimately come to the correct conclusion: “In that we have never failed to find reasons for being grateful to God for a generous preponderance of the good.” Perhaps referencing the Civil War and more imminently, the First World War, Coolidge stated that “[e]ven in the least propitious times, a broad contemplation of our whole position has never failed to disclose overwhelming reasons for thankfulness.”
Coolidge then marked Thanksgiving 1922 for the purpose he gave to the occasion generally:
In this current year, we now approach the time which has been accepted by custom as most fitting for the calm survey of our estate and the return of thanks. We shall the more keenly realize our good fortune, if we will, in deep sincerity, give to it due thought, and more especially, if we will compare it with that of any other community in the world.
Here again, Coolidge counsels Americans to not only be thankful, but to be contemplative. He suggested that were Americans to carefully consider both the good and the bad, the country “[w]e shall the more keenly realize our good fortune…” Coolidge’s invitation to Americans to compare the circumstances of that of other countries would come up again in short order.
Having advised Americans to think about the good and the bad that the country had experienced, Coolidge then addressed two hardships.
The year has brought to our people two tragic experiences which have deeply affected them.
As I noted in the introduction, Coolidge’s predecessor, Warren G. Harding, had died in office that August, slightly more than half-way into his first term as President. While Harding does not have a great reputation in historian surveys, he was quite popular at the time, and by all accounts Coolidge and his wife, then First Lady Grace Coolidge, respected Harding deeply. It should come as no surprise that Coolidge paid homage to Harding in his Thanksgiving Proclamation:
One was the death of our beloved President Harding, which has been mourned wherever there is a realization of the worth of high ideals, noble purpose and unselfish service carried even to the end of supreme sacrifice. His loss recalled the nation to a less captious and more charitable attitude. It sobered the whole thought of the country.
The second tragic experience that Coolidge detailed came from abroad:
A little later came the unparalleled disaster to the friendly people of Japan. This called forth from the people of the United States a demonstration of deep and humane feeling. It was wrought into the substance of good works. It created new evidences of our international friendship, which is a guarantee of world peace. It replenished the charitable impulse of the country.
Coolidge was referencing the Great Kanto Earthquake, which had occurred on September 1, 1923. A Smithsonian article noted that about 144,000 Japanese were killed in the disaster. Coolidge had issued a Proclamation about the earthquake on September 3 and supported the Red Cross’s relief drive, which raised $12 million (Coolidge, as President, was titular head of the Red Cross). This case making it into Coolidge’s Thanksgiving Proclamation reminded me that just five years earlier, in his capacity as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge had given a Fourth of July speech on relations between the United States and Japan, which I covered in an article.
Returning to his theme in the introduction, Coolidge explained the significance of contemplating hardships on Thanksgiving:
By experiences such as these, men and nations are tested and refined. We have been blessed with much of material prosperity. We shall be better able to appreciate it if we remember the privations others have suffered, and we shall be the more worthy of it if we use it for their relief. We will do well then to render thanks for the good that has come to us, and show by our actions that we have become stronger, wiser, and truer by the chastenings which have been imposed upon us. We will thus prepare ourselves for the part we must take in a world which forever needs the full measure of service. We have been a most favored people. We ought to be a most generous people. We have been a most blessed people. We ought to be a most thankful people.
Coolidge urged Americans to not only be grateful for their material prosperity, but to appreciate it. That appreciation, he suggested, was made greater by contrasting it with “the privations others have suffered” – and that contrast would cause people to be more inclined to use their material prosperity for good. Being prosperous is good, but to borrow a quote from a speech on the home that then-Vice President Coolidge had written one year earlier in 1922, it did not complete the circuit. People ought to be generous and thankful.
Having finished his preamble, Coolidge then delivered the main part of the Proclamation:
Wherefore, I, Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States, do hereby fix and designate Thursday, the twenty-ninth day of November, as Thanksgiving Day, and recommend its general observance throughout the land. It is urged that the people, gathering in their homes and their usual places of worship, give expression to their gratitude for the benefits and blessings that a gracious Providence has bestowed upon them, and seek the guidance of Almighty God, that they may deserve a continuance of His favor.
Thus, Thanksgiving in 1923 would fall on November 29.
Coolidge’s later Proclamations
Coolidge’s 1923 Thanksgiving Proclamation is both slightly longer and significantly more detailed than his subsequent Proclamations, which were more clearly utilitarian in purpose and lacked the reflections on the meaning of Thanksgiving and the references to specific events that we saw in his first. Notwithstanding the reference to the Great Kanto Earthquake, I suspect that the detail in Coolidge’s 1923 Proclamation was prompted first and foremost by the then-recent death of Harding – which inspired Coolidge to consider how Thanksgiving should be understood as a day of reflection and careful contemplation about all that had happened in the previous year, both good and bad. In addition to acknowledging the victims of a great world tragedy, Coolidge’s reference to the Great Kanto Earthquake gave him the opportunity to show how such contemplation can inspire people to gratitude and generosity.
However, I did come across one interesting line in Coolidge’s 1925 Thanksgiving Proclamation, the first of his own full term as President (Coolidge won the 1924 Presidential Election):
As we have grown and prospered in material things, so also should we progress in moral and spiritual things. We are a God-fearing people who should set ourselves against evil and strive for righteousness in living, and observing the Golden Rule we should from our abundance help and serve those less fortunately placed. We should bow in gratitude to God for His many favors.
This line echoes many of the themes of Coolidge’s 1923 Proclamation – specifically the linking of reflection, gratitude, and generosity, but the manner in which it appeals to “moral and spiritual themes” foreshadows themes that would appear in Coolidge’s July 4, 1926 address on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, which I covered in detail.