The first federal Thanksgiving in 1789 still has lessons for us today

It doesn’t take much to pick up on the dour mood of our country today. Citizens are unimpressed with political leadership, divided amongst themselves, and uncertain about America’s role in the world.

In the face of these challenges, remembering the history of Thanksgiving can prove its civic value – beyond the private joys of a well-stuffed turkey, three professional football games and pre-planning for Black Friday shopping.

To capture such public benefits, we should turn not just to the Pilgrims of the 1620s, but to the First Federal Thanksgiving of 1789. The American founding leadership realized that a national Thanksgiving could be a useful reminder for public officials of their duty, for building unity in a diverse society, and for keeping national arrogance in check.

President George Washington, members of Congress and other federal government officials who assembled in New York in 1789 confronted the uncertainty of creating a government without a road map. They realized they had more responsibilities than just those laid out in the newly ratified Constitution.

Our first federal leaders under our new Constitution realized they had to nurture unity while their constituencies thought of themselves as members of small communities, rather than a larger nation. And our leaders had to seek common goals without destroying the nation through arrogant overreach.

Further, they had to create the functioning of the government described in the Constitution and fill it with its first officials – such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Chief Justice John Jay.

More generally, our first leaders realized that their actions would set precedents, so President Washington wrestled with detailed questions as how and when to meet the public.

In the middle of these questions, the issue of a thanksgiving proclamation arose. Congress had issued calls for thanksgiving during the American Revolution and later under the Articles of Confederation.

These proclamations did several things. They enumerated specific items worthy of giving thanks;  called for repentance for wrongs done; listed topics for prayer; and made a formal call for public assembly in the houses of worship of the citizens’ choice.

The question confronting the new government was whether such a practice would still be appropriate, given that there was no express mention of such acts in the text of the Constitution.

So our earliest elected officials did a very American thing – they argued about it.

Rep. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey took the initiative. He rose in the fall of 1789 to say he “could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States, of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”

As a result, Boudinot proposed a motion for “a day of public Thanksgiving and Prayer.”

The motion was debated seriously.

Several South Carolinian representatives questioned the appropriateness of such a resolution. They feared that such a day would be misused for political purposes.

Still, the great majority of the House of Representatives – and subsequently of the Senate –approved the motion. Significantly, then, those close to the ratification of the Constitution saw such an action as entirely appropriate.

As a result, Congress appointed a delegation led by Boudinot to request such a proclamation from President Washington.

President Washington agreed and he issued a proclamation on October 3, 1789, calling for a day of thanksgiving to be observed on Nov. 26 of that year.

The Thanksgiving proclamation was substantive. It carried a precedent and communicated considered instruction for the country. It began by recognizing a duty “to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits.”

The proclamation then enumerated the many things the nation had to be grateful for, noting especially the way “we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness” and the “civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

President Washington next encouraged that the national thanksgiving should be coupled with prayers to the “great Lord and Ruler of Nations.” These prayers, according to the president, should first be for all citizens “to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our … duties properly.”

Our first president then encouraged Americans to seek “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.”

President Washington concluded by encouraging Americans to pray for blessings not only on America, but on all nations.

Thus, the First Federal Thanksgiving proclamation was content-rich, not an exercise in mere civil religion. Moreover, it set a pattern that would be followed by President Washington’s successor, John Adams.

More generally, advocates for designating a day of thanksgiving demonstrated their confidence in the constitutionality of government encouragement, though not a requirement, of religious observance.

Further, they considered deeply the benefits of giving thanks. In response to those entrusted with new or powerful offices, a day of thanksgiving could call public figures to act responsibly – a reminder that current officials could take to heart.

Thanksgiving also recognized that life’s bounties were received; they were gifts of divine providence. A community recognition of those blessings could contribute to greater unity among a disparate population.

Recognizing blessings could also produce humility. Appropriate humility could serve well to keep a young nation with great ambition from becoming arrogant, claiming total credit for accomplishments reached.

In the midst of the upheaval of our day, such insights about gratitude, humility and public thanksgiving might yet produce a bountiful harvest for our civic life. 

Jonathan Den Hartog is a scholar adviser at the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia and an associate professor of history at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota.