A History of Thanksgiving | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

A History of Thanksgiving

Portrait of George Washington's family
The Washington Family by Edward Savage (1789–96). Savage painted this near-life-size group portrait from sketches he made at the Osgood House in December 1789 and January 1790.

In honor of one of America’s most hallowed holidays, we’d like to share a post from Bailey Martin of the National Archives History Office, a story about the history of Thanksgiving, “A Thanksgiving Presidential Proclamation.” I think you will find it as interesting as we did.

But first, we’d like to thank our many guests who have helped us to promote the study and discourse of history by traveling with us to the places where history was made. We wish you and your family a very Happy Thanksgiving!

A Thanksgiving Presidential 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.”

So begins the first time the President of the United States issued a proclamation for Thanksgiving Day.

The statement, by President George Washington on October 3, 1789, officially gave the holiday his blessing. Though Thanksgiving was certainly not a new holiday requiring great fanfare, this particular year was special because it was the first celebrated under the new Constitution.

Though Presidential proclamations are not a Thanksgiving requirement, they serve as an enduring tradition while offering a unique look into the various struggles that were affecting Americans around this time of year. It is customary for each President to release a statement every year—in addition to the now-familiar rituals of turkey pardonings and quiet Presidential retreats to Camp David—to officially acknowledge the nationwide celebration of the holiday.

However, these proclamations also offer a unique look into the most important happenings in America at the time. What, exactly, was on the country’s mind for this Thanksgiving?

Though the Revolutionary War had concluded eight years earlier, freedom was still fresh on the people’s minds. Washington addressed their jubilant mood in his proclamation, calling for the citizens of the new United States of America to “most humbly offer . . . prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations for his hand in allowing such a freedom to come to fruition” and for “protect[ing] and guid[ing] all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us).” 

In the true spirit of Thanksgiving, he seemed determined not to let his country forget their good fortune and those responsible for bringing it about.

Also, as the Constitution had just been signed and ratified replacing the Articles of Confederation, the President called for faith and trust in the new governing laws and bodies of the United States. He asked that the country be thankful for a “national government [that was] a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”

Although the past two centuries have been filled with Thanksgiving proclamations like this one, two phrases stand out from 1789.

First, many Presidential proclamations have been signed “at the City of Washington,” but this one was signed by Washington: ”Given under my hand at the City of New York.” It was likely signed at Federal Hall in New York City, then the capital since Washington, DC, and the White House had yet been established and built.

Also, as our country was very much in its infancy, the President did not attach the years since independence to the proclamation date, as is now tradition. Washington simply finishes with, “the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.” Such a young country did not yet know the hope it would give to citizens of the world, and the prayers of Thanksgiving they would offer up in return in the decades to come.

Happy Thanksgiving from the National Archives!

Images of Historical Documents

There are some terrific images of historical documents in the National Archives that are associated with this post, including one of George Washington’s October 3, 1789, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.

Read the entire post, A Thanksgiving Presidential Proclamation>>

National Archives Pieces of History Blog

As noted on the National Archives Pieces of History blog, the National Archives has billions of pieces of history in it — from hero pigeons to FDR’s globe. The Pieces of History blog shares stories, the latest “discoveries,” from the vast holdings of the Archives—more than 12 billion pages of records, miles and miles of tape and film, and a growing number of electronic records.

If you enjoyed “A Thanksgiving Presidential Proclamation,” you can sign up for the Pieces of History Blog to read their other fascinating stories of history.

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