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As We Give Thanks for Pilgrims and Turkeys, Let Us Not Forget Our Two Most Iconic Presidents

by Thomas Dulan, Associate Editor
November 28, 2016

The origin of Thanksgiving Day in America is a bit of a moving target. Tradition has it that Thanksgiving has been handed down to us from the Pilgrims and friendly Wampanoag Indians, who joined together for a celebratory feast in November 1621 to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. In grade schools throughout the United States, construction-paper silhouettes of Pilgrim hats, Indian headdresses, turkeys, and cornucopias have withstood many changings of the generational guard as part of November’s classroom décor.

In recollections of the now-distant past, I can envision as well the similar cutout depictions—in black construction paper—of our two most celebrated and mythologized presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  I can no longer state with any certainty whether George and Abe adorned my classroom in company with the Pilgrims and turkeys, or whether I am merely conflating memories of November’s classroom décor with February’s. And yet, if our iconic first and sixteenth presidents were not memorialized in classroom wall festoons in November, then more’s the pity in lessons lost, for each belongs front-and-center in the story of Thanksgiving Day in America.

George Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Link to source.

George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Link to source.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated various dates (including December 18, 17771 and December 30, 17782) as ad hoc days of thanksgiving. But there was no established holiday until President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making it so. Sounding echoes of the Pilgrims, Lincoln cited “the blessings of fruitful fields” and other “bounties . . . 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.” The wartime president went on to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation” and called upon the American people to “observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father.”3

Lincoln issued his proclamation on October 3, 1863, exactly three months after the Battle of Gettysburg and, perhaps more significantly, seventy-four years to the day after President George Washington had issued a similar 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 . . . I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next” as a day “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts [His] many signal favors,” and most especially the “opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”4

Washington entreated the people of the new United States of America to set aside a day of gratitude for the blessings of a growing nation and “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” Decades later, on the 74th anniversary of what we might consider our nation’s first Thanksgiving Day, the president of the reconstituted United States established the observance as a permanent national holiday, even as he struggled to hold that nation together.

 

Notes

1. See General Orders, 30 Nov., and 17 Dec. 1777.

2. See Henry Laurens to GW, 20-21 Nov. 1778; GW to John Sullivan, 20 Dec. 1778; General Orders, 22 Dec. 1778; and Sullivan to GW, 14 Jan. 1779.

3. DNA: RG 11, General Records of the United States Government; Presidential Proclamations, 1791-2000.

4. Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 Oct. 1789, Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 4:131-32.