It was in 1621 that the first “Thanksgiving” was celebrated by Massachusetts settlers. The pilgrims and the Wampanoag people celebrated this day in November of 1621 to celebrate the first successful colonial corn harvest. In response to this and to show appreciation, Governor of the colony William Bradford called for a feast to last three days.
Then, over one hundred years later, George Washington, on October 3, 1789, would issue a proclamation establishing the very first nationally sanctioned Thanksgiving holiday to be observed on November 26 of that year. Subsequent presidents John Adams and James Madison likewise declared the Thanksgiving holiday. However, after this, each state decided for themselves when to celebrate Thanksgiving. This primarily occurred in Northern states and New England.
However, the establishment of a Thanksgiving to be celebrated “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 an observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens” would not be established until October 3, 1863, by then President Abraham Lincoln.
President Lincoln would issue this proclamation for a national day of Thanksgiving in the aftermath of the great battles of 1863 such as Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga.
Sarah Josepha Hale
Lincoln had been previously written by a 74-year-old magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale prompted the president in her September 28, 1863, letter stating
You may have observed that for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day in all the states; it now needs national recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution. Would it not be fitting and patriotic … to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.
Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863
Thus, Abraham Lincoln established, during some of the worst fighting America would ever see, the national holiday of Thanksgiving. This proclamation was printed in the then popular Harper’s Weekly two weeks laters on October 17, 1863. The proclamation was as follows:
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
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 unequalled 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 consciousness 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 United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre in 1865, the date set aside for Thanksgiving was changed. President Andrew Johnson, formerly Lincoln’s Vice President, backed setting the first Thursday of the month of December as the day for Thanksgiving. However, the date would be switched back to the guidelines set by Lincoln the following year. The reason being
The civil war that so recently closed among us has not been anywhere reopened; foreign intervention has ceased to excite alarm or apprehension; intrusive pestilence has been benignly mitigated; domestic tranquility has improved, sentiments of conciliation have largely prevailed, and affections of loyalty and patriotism have been widely renewed; our fields have yielded quite abundantly, our mining industry has been richly rewarded, and we have been allowed to extend our railroad system far into the interior recesses of the country, while our commerce has resumed its customary activity in foreign seas.
These great national blessings demand a national acknowledgment.
Then, under the 18th President Ulysses S. Grant, in 1869, the third Thursday of November was celebrated. The next year, 1870, until 1939, the final Thursday of the month was dedicated to Thanksgiving. It was then that President Franklin D. Roosevelt switched the holiday back to the third Thursday of the month.
A Fixed Thanksgiving
In 1939, however, only 23 states followed Roosevelt and celebrated on November 23. Another 23 states choose to celebrate on the final Thursday of November. A few years later in 1942, during World War II, Congress officially passed a law establishing the fourth Thursday of November as the day of Thanksgiving.