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When even Charles Pierce thinks that the holiday we observe today is connected with anything that happened to the settlers of Plymouth in 1620, it's really time to set the record straight. Our Thanksgiving Day was the creation of a determined woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, who persuaded Abraham Lincoln that observing a day of Thanksgiving annually would be a good idea. Below you'll find Lincoln's proclamation, in which you will search in vain for any mention of the original European settlers, as well as  the background of all this.

So first, the proclamation, from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. It's actually the work of his Secretary of State, William Seward, just as the Monroe Doctrine was actually the work of HIS secretary of state, John Quincy Adams.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre 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 defence, 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 consiousness 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, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

We're winning the war, so let's give thanks, but let's remember the suffering of the survivors as well. Perfectly in keeping with the political discourse of the era which pretty much honored the provision of the First Amendment that said Congress could make no laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Note that the Puritans and Divine Providence are all here too, implicitly. The Pilgrims? It's a reach.

And how did we get there? By way of a very influential woman at a time during the 19th Century when women were supposed to be restricted to the private sphere.  The editor of the most influential women's magazine of the era, Godey's Lady's Book, from 1837 to 1877. Not a feminist in our terms, but a woman who made certain kinds of feminism possible.


Sarah Josepha Hale, James Reid Lambkin, 1831; Wikimedia Commons

I previewed this in The Puritans and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts, 1620-1630. The political cartoons that refer to the "first" Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony just keep coming, too.


John Deering, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, November 24, 2011

Well, yes, the Puritans were people who celebrated fast days and feast days of thanksgiving. Whenever they thought that God had shown them favor. More than once a year, even.  So, no, this is where the idea came from, but it's not the DAY itself. I should also note that the sentiment expressed in this cartoon was expressed more in "pay it forward" terms than in "return the favor" terms, as Ojibwa regularly points out in the Indians 101 series.

So let's meet Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, as Joyce Appleby calls her, and examine how our Thanksgiving Day came to be. It's not like we didn't have a day like this, but it wasn't national. New England observed an annual Thanksgiving day, beginning with a church service and continuing with a large meal in the afternoon. This may account for the Pilgrim imagery and the idea it's continuous, but Texas observed a day of Thanksgiving too. George Washington, John Adams and James Madison issued proclamations, but again, these were ad hoc and not a regular occasion.

Enter Mrs. Hale.  She began to write editorials encouraging a "Great American Festival" in 1846. She wrote letters to governors of states and territories and to overseas missionaries, and these became more frequent as the 1850s went on; she thought a day like this would avert the approaching civil war (that worked well, didn't it). Presidents Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan all ignored her appeals. But Lincoln asked his secretary of state, William Seward, to write a proclamation, and what you saw above was issued on October 3, 1863. Okay, she DID promote it it as a uniquely American event that began with the "pilgrim fathers"  as the originators of a "custom" that she wanted her fellow Americans to adopt, so they could become active participants in the fulfillment of the country's destiny. I'm sure that's exactly what you think of as you sit down at the Thanksgiving table.

FDR moved Thanksgiving up a week to increase the length of the Christmas shopping season (it used to BEGIN the day after, not the day after Hallowe'en) and Congress made it a permanent national holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in 1941. So here we are.

And, if you think I'm spinning this or intentionally leaving out stuff, here's the Disunion series, which has been recapping and analyzing the American Civil war since at least April 2011,  in the New York Times saying the same thing.

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Thu Nov 28, 2013 at 09:43 AM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism.

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