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On October 3, 1863, then-President Abraham Lincoln published a Proclamation of Thanksgiving. Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, written by Secretary of State William Seward, was the first to set Thanksgiving as a fixed national holiday. The thanksgiving tradition, however, predated the U.S. Constitution, and presidents prior to Lincoln had issued annual thanksgiving proclamations. In this article, I will cover, and then reprint, the very first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued by then-President George Washington.
Behind the First Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation
George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789. Less than one year into what would be his first of two terms, the subject of a day of thanksgiving arose in Congress. For an account of the Congressional deliberations, let us turn to archives.gov, with analysis courtesy of The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.
Joint Resolution Requesting a Thanksgiving Proclamation
Elias Boudinot, a United States Representative from New Jersey introduced a joint resolution in the House of Representatives calling for a joint committee of Congress to request that President Washington “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 Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”
Opposition to the Thanksgiving Joint Resolution
Several members of the House objected to Congressman Boudinot’s joint resolution. Congressman Aedanus Burke of South Carolina did not approve of what he described as a “mimicking of European customs…”
A different Congressman from South Carolina, Thomas Tudor Tucker, felt that the it was not the House’s place to make a request, and he questioned “[w]hy should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” Suggesting some reservations about the Constitution in its earliest stages, Congressman Tucker added that the people “may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.” Congressman Tucker added an additional concern regarding a national thanksgiving proclamation: “[I]t is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.” Congressman Tucker continued by suggesting that as a religious matter, a thanksgiving proclamation should only be issued “by the authority of several States,” suggesting that he felt only the Federal government was precluded from issuing proclamations in this area.
Congress Establishes Joint Committee to Request a Thanksgiving Proclamation
Notwithstanding the objections of South Carolina’s delegation to the House of Representatives, the joint resolution for requesting that President Washington issue a thanksgiving proclamation passed the House. The House appointed Congressmen Boudinot, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Peter Silvester of New York to the committee. The Senate agreed to the resolution on September 26, 1789, and appointed Senators William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut and Ralph Izard of South Carolina to the joint committee. The joint committee presented the joint resolution to President Washington on September 28, 1789.
President Washington Issues Thanksgiving Proclamation
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. While Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation did not set forth a national holiday in the way that post-1863 proclamations would do, it was sent to the Governor of each state as a circular.
President Washington’s Circular to Governors Regarding Thanksgiving Proclamation
President Washington’s Circular to the Governors of the States reads as follows:
I do myself the honor to enclose to your Excellency a Proclamation for a general Thanksgiving which I must request the favor of you to have published and made known in your State in the way and manner that shall be most agreeable to yourself. I have the honor to be your Excellency’s most obedient Servant.
As the text of the circular suggested, President Washington accompanied the request with the Thanksgiving Proclamation itself, and he asked each of the Governors to have it published in their states.
President Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation
Below, you will find the text of Washington’s October 3, 1789, Thanksgiving Proclamation, reproduced in its entirety:
By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.
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—and 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.”
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—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—for 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—for 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.
and 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—to 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 encrease 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.
Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Celebrating Thanksgiving in 1789
According to The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, the first post-Constitution thanksgiving was widely celebrated. It notes, for example, recognition of thanksgiving in Virginia on November 19 and in New York on November 28.
Thoughts on Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation
President Washington began the Thanksgiving Proclamation by quoting directly the joint resolution from Congress that requested him to recommend a day of thanksgiving. In accordance with the request, President Washington recommended that the States observe a day of thanksgiving on November 26, 1789.
President Washington’s Proclamation called for the People of the United States to unite in humbly thanking God, both “for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation” and “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 lastly instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed…”
President Washington concluded in broader terms, calling for the People of the United States to “beseech [God] to pardon our national and other transgressions” and to enable individuals in the private and public capacities “to render our national government a blessing to all the people…” He extended this prayer to ask God to “guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord…” Finally, concluding with the utmost humility, President Washington called for a day for supplications and prayers to God to “generally grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows best.”
Final Thanksgiving Proclamation Thoughts
President Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation began a presidential tradition that continues to this day. Although we are now well-accustomed to Thanksgiving greeting us on the fourth Thursday of November, the President still issues an annual Thanksgiving Proclamation. For example, you can see the “Proclamation on Thanksgiving Day, 2020,” issued by President Donald Trump on November 25, 2020, at this link.
The language of President Washington’s 1789 Proclamation differs in many respects from most contemporary Thanksgiving Proclamations. Washington’s use of religious language may stand out to some modern readers. It is not entirely absent in contemporary Proclamations – some recent Proclamations have made references to religion. For example, President Trump’s 2020 Proclamation “encourage[s] all Americans to gather, in homes and places of worship, to offer a prayer of thanks to God for our many blessings.” President Washington’s Proclamation, however, is entirely oriented toward recommending a day to give thanks to God for America’s safety prior to the National Constitution and its being able to create a new Government. Furthermore, President Washington encouraged the people of the United States to offer “prayers and supplications” both in asking for pardon and for promoting the wisdom and virtue necessary for the Government of the United States to be “a blessing to all the people…”
As I write this, Thanksgiving is mere hours away. I hope that all of our readers enjoy their Thanksgivings and, in the spirit of the original purpose of the day, find things to be thankful for. But, in the spirit of Congressman Thomas Tudor Tucker, far be it from me to tell anyone what they should or should not be thankful for.