Grassroots Commentary

How We Got Thanksgiving Day

Bill Franklin · Nov. 25, 2013

In early September of 1620, 104 men, women, and children crowded aboard a leaky ship that was about 90 feet long and 26 feet wide amidships and set sail for the New World. The ship, named the Mayflower, would be at sea for 66 days before making landfall on the point of the fish hook we call Cape Cod, where it anchored near the location that would become Provincetown. It was well north of its intended destination of Virginia and therefore the passengers had no patent from the English crown to settle in this place.

The passengers continued living on board for a month while a few men first explored the Cape area. Finding curious mounds, the explorers punched holes in several revealing some to be granaries for corn and beans but others to be graves whose desecration didn’t endear the trespassers to the natives. A boat was built to explore the leeward shoreline of Cape Cod, and finding the natural harbor at modern day Plymouth and a defensible hill above it, they decided to make their settlement there. With winter approaching, shelter had to be built before the majority of passengers could disembark.

The long ocean crossing and the additional month crammed aboard ship had done little to improve the disposition of the passengers, which was compounded by the fact that 44 of them were religious dissenters from the Church of England while 66 made the voyage as a business venture. The dissenters called themselves the “Saints” and called the others “Strangers” – hardly a good way to create unity. Despite having more differences than similarities, their survival depended on cooperation, of which there was little on board the ship. Therefore, William Bradford, who had emerged as the informal leader, recommended that before disembarking every passenger should sign an agreement that set forth rules for self-government, which later came to be called the Mayflower Compact.

The first winter was ghastly. Now calling themselves Pilgrims, over half of them died in three months. They were buried at night, fearing that the surrounding Indians would learn that their number was dwindling which might encourage an attack. Unlike the Indians encountered on the Cape, however, the Pilgrims had settled among the peaceful Wampanoags. And in March the tribal chief, Massasoit, sent Samoset as his ambassador to the settlers because Samoset spoke English. He had providentially learned English from sailors who had fished the coast and briefly lived on land nearby. After his first encounter with the Pilgrims, Samoset returned with Tisquantum, known in history as Squanto, an Indian who had been kidnapped in 1614 by an English slave raider and sold in Málaga, Spain. There he had learned English from local friars, escaped slavery, and found his way back on an expedition ship headed to the New England coast in 1619 – the year before the Pilgrims arrived.

Since Squanto spoke better English than Samoset, he became the technical advisor to the Pilgrims, teaching them how to raise corn, where and how to catch fish, and how to make things needed for working and hunting. He showed them plants they could eat and plants the Indians used for medicinal purposes. Squanto was the reason that the settlement survived during its first two years.

The first year the Pilgrims farmed communally and nearly starved. William Bradford’s diary tells us he astutely learned from that failure and decided thereafter that each man should forsake communal farming and instead farm for his own family’s food needs. “This had very good success,” Bradford wrote, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many.” The Pilgrims' experiment in socialism was a valuable lesson.

After taking in an abundant harvest in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit, and 90 other Wampanoag men to join them in a three-day celebration of their success. The festivities consisted of games and feasting – and a not-so-subtle display of Pilgrim musketry just in case the natives became unfriendly in the future. This celebration is recorded in history as the first Thanksgiving – which it wasn’t.

In fact, two years earlier on December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred, part of the Virginia Colony, in an area then known as Charles Cittie (sic), It was located about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, the first permanent settlement of the Virginia Colony, which had been established in 1607. The Berkley settlers celebrated the first known Thanksgiving in the New World. Their charter required that the day of arrival should be observed yearly as a “day of thanksgiving” to God. On that first Thanksgiving day, December 4, Captain John Woodleaf presided over the service. The charter specified the thanksgiving service: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

But not for long. Nine of the Berkley settlers were killed in the Indian Massacre of 1622 which also wiped out a third of the population of the Virginia Colony. Therefore, Berkeley and other outlying settlements were abandoned as the colonists moved back to Jamestown and other more secure points. Thanksgiving was forgotten.

The first national celebration of Thanksgiving occurred in 1777. This was a one-time only Thanksgiving in which the 13 colonies, rather than celebrating food and God’s providence, celebrated the defeat of the British at Saratoga in October by Washington’s Continental Army.

In 1789 President George Washington made the first presidential proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national event. Under this proclamation it was to occur later that year on November 26. Some were opposed to it, particularly those in the south. They felt the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday and besides, such proclamations were excessively Yankee and Federalist – or so they thought.

John Adams, the second president, issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1798 enlisting the help of the Almighty not only against celestial evil but also in the more mundane battles of his administration. He seemed to be asking God to side with the Federalists against his struggles with the Jeffersonians. When he later revealed that the proclamation had been recommended by (gasp!) Presbyterians, it set off a firestorm that Adams, a devout Unitarian, was leading a movement to establish the Presbyterian Church as the national religion. Adams became the first one-term president – a fact he attributed to his proclamation.

In 1779, as Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson decreed a day of “Public and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.” But as the third president, he opposed nationalizing Thanksgiving proclamations. Writing to a Reverend Samuel Miller, Jefferson said, “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises …”

In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Each state celebrated it on a different day, but the South didn’t embrace the tradition. Therefore, for almost 60 years following Jefferson’s presidency, Thanksgiving remained a non-event on the national scene with no advocate until Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale was no shrinking violet. She raised $30,000 for the construction of the Bunker Hill monument in Boston and started the movement to preserve Washington’s Mount Vernon home for future generations. She was a fervent believer in God and the American Union, as well as being a fierce abolitionist. Hale had made it her business to advocate and get action on symbols that celebrated America and what today is known as American exceptionalism.

Notwithstanding Andy Warhol, Hale had more than 15 minutes of fame. She authored the words to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and was the editor for two prominent women’s magazines of her day. Beginning in 1846 she had written editorials calling for a uniform national celebration of Thanksgiving, writing four presidents and dozens of congressmen to push her cause.

In October 1863, America was embroiled in the American Civil War where the concept of “Union” was very much at issue. Hale tried again writing to her fifth president, Abraham Lincoln.

Hale’s proposal found a place in Lincoln’s heart. The battle of Gettysburg had been fought three months earlier and he was to travel to the battlefield the following month. He had been invited to be the clean-up batter after the keynote speaker, Edward Everett, who orated for two hours. Lincoln’s 278-word dedicatory address would become his most famous utterance.

Touched by Hale’s pleas, Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863 setting its observance on the last Thursday of November.

After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor, Andrew Johnson, ever the contrarian, issued an 1865 Proclamation to “observe the first Thursday of December next as a day of national thanksgiving to the Creator of the Universe …” Yet the next three proclamations of the quirky tailor from Greeneville Tennessee returned Thanksgiving to the last Thursday in November.

Despite the presidential proclamations, states went their own ways. Southern governors often opted for inexplicable dates for observance or none at all. Oran Milo Roberts, governor of Texas in the late 1880s refused to observe Thanksgiving in the Lone Star State, snorting, “It’s a damned Yankee institution anyway.” But the South eventually succumbed to observing it.

Then along came Franklin D. Roosevelt whose finagling with the date of Thanksgiving created a national uproar.

In 1939 there were five Thursdays in November and the last one was the 30th, leaving only three weeks and change before Christmas. This wadded the boxers of the presidents for Gimbel Brothers, Lord & Taylor, and other retailers concerned less with tradition than sales in the waning years of the Great Depression. They asked Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the 23rd allowing an additional week for shopping. Although I’ve never understood why Christmas shopping couldn’t start before Thanksgiving, Roosevelt acceded and the country went ballistic.

Polls showed that 60% of the public opposed the change in date. Republicans in Congress were affronted that Roosevelt, a Democrat, would change the precedent of Lincoln, a Republican.

New England, from which the Thanksgiving tradition sprang, put teeth in its resistance. The selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts informed Roosevelt in no uncertain words, “It is a religious holiday and [you] have no right to change it for commercial reasons.” Massachusetts Governor Leverett Saltonstall harrumphed that “Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks to the Almighty and not for the inauguration of Christmas shopping.”

Methodist minister Norma Vincent Peal was outraged, calling it “…questionable thinking and contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with the sacred religious day with the specious excuse that it will help Christmas sales. The next thing we may expect is Christmas to be shifted to May first to help the New York World’s Fair of 1940.”

Nor did all merchants favor the presidential rejiggering of the Thanksgiving date. One shopkeeper hung a sign in his window reading, “Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.”

Usually the states followed the federal government’s lead on Thanksgiving, but they never relinquished their right to set their state’s date for the holiday. Predictably 48 battles erupted.

New Deal Republicans had wit on their side in the national lampoon of Roosevelt. Republican Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire urged the President to abolish winter. The Republican mayor of Atlantic City recommended that Franklin Roosevelt’s holiday be renamed “Franksgiving,” while the Republican Attorney General of Oregon came up with this bit of doggerel:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one.
Until we hear from Washington.

Twenty-three states celebrated Thanksgiving 1939 on November 23, and another 23 stood fast with November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, shrugged their shoulders and celebrated both days, with Texas having the innovative reason – to avoid having to move the Texas versus Texas A&M football game. The 30th was labeled the Republican’s Thanksgiving, while the 23rd became the Democrat’s Thanksgiving.

Roosevelt’s experiment in moving the Thanksgiving date to improve Christmas sales continued for two more years, although 1940 and 1941 had Novembers with four Thursdays. But the evidence was against the assumptions – more shopping days did not increase sales. Roosevelt conceded and agreed to move Thanksgiving back to the last Thursday in November.

Under public pressure, the US House of Representatives passed a joint resolution in October 1941 to put Thanksgiving on the traditional last Thursday beginning in 1942. However, when the resolution reached the Senate in December, the Senate converted the resolution to law and changed one word: “last” was amended to “fourth” so never again would Thanksgiving fall on the 29th or 30th of November. The states followed suit, although Texas held on to the last Thursday until 1956.

So on this Thanksgiving, and all the future Thanksgivings, let’s raise a drumstick in salute to Sarah Josepha Hale, who instituted its observance, and to Franklin Roosevelt, who went on to convince Americans that he could “save” daylight and move an hour from the morning to the afternoon.

Now, that’s a nice trick!