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Our View: The first official Thanksgiving

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 20, 2012
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Our heritage is important.

It has shaped who we are as a nation and a people. It gives us a foundation and a compass for what we do.

That’s why we often devote this space in the week of Thanksgiving to historical reminders of our past and roots.

Some of you may remember that what follows appeared on this page Nov. 22, 2007. It’s the story of George Washington proclaiming the new nation’s first official Thanksgiving Day:

The story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in October 1621 in Plymouth, Mass., used to be a history lesson that most Americans learned in elementary school.

The short version is that thanks to the advice of the Indian Squanto (use fish as fertilizer), the Pilgrims’ corn crop proved bountiful that fall. So they celebrated their first harvest with feasting, games and prayer, an English custom.

Edward Winslow, one of the leaders of the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth, Mass., described that feast in his diary.

But less known than the first feast, and yet equally important, is how the designation of Thanksgiving Day by our first president, George Washington, came about.

Washington’s proclamation started with a proposal in Congress from Rep. Elias Boudinot of Burlington, N.J., on Sept. 25, 1789. Boudinot offered a resolution that a joint committee of both Houses be directed to ask that Washington 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 Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”

The House was not unanimous on the resolution. Historians W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, in “The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series” (1993), quoted Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina, saying he “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.”

Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina thought the House had no business to interfere in a matter that did not concern it, hinting at one of the earliest congressional disagreements over the separation of church and state.

“Why should the president direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” Tucker said. “They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness. We do not yet know, but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced; but whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.

“If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States,” Tucker said.

But citing the Bible and resolutions of the Continental Congress, the proponents of a Thanksgiving celebration prevailed. The Senate also agreed to the resolution, delivering a joint resolution to President Washington on Sept. 28.

On Oct. 3, 1789, Washington issued the proclamation (see box below), designating a day of prayer and thanksgiving.

According to historians Abbot and Twohig, “Whatever reservations may have been held by some public officials, the day was widely celebrated throughout the nation. The Virginia assembly, for example, resolved on Nov. 19 that the chaplain ‘to this House, be accordingly requested to perform divine service, and to preach a sermon in the Capitol, before the General Assembly, suitable to the importance and solemnity of the occasion, on the said 26th day of November.’”

Most newspapers printed the proclamation and announced plans for public functions in honor of the day, according to Abbot and Twohig. Many churches celebrated by soliciting donations for the poor.

Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear, wrote to John Rodgers, pastor of the two Presbyterian churches in New York City, on Nov. 28, that “by direction of the President of the United States I have the pleasure to send you $25 to be applied toward relieving the poor of the Presbyterian Churches. A paragraph in the papers mentioned that a contribution would be made for that purpose on Thanksgiving Day; as no opportunity offered of doing it at that time, and not knowing into whose hands the money should be lodged which might be given afterward … The President of the United States has directed me to send it to you, requesting that you will be so good as to put it into the way of answering the charitable purpose for which it is intended.”

Washington enclosed the Thanksgiving proclamation in his Circular to the Governors of the States, written Oct. 3, 1789, in New York: “I do myself the honor to enclose to your Excellency a Proclamation for a general Thanksgiving, which I must request the favor of you to have published and made known in your State in the way and manner that shall be most agreeable to yourself.”

• • •

Thanks to little known Rep. Elias Boudinot and greater known George Washington, we, as a nation, have this important, lasting tradition.

But the story of Washington’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation serves as another important reminder: of our nation’s umbilical ties to God. Washington made 12 references to God in his proclamation.

This is our heritage. We are not a secular, God-less nation. And that’s why, on Thanksgiving Day, so many of us in the USA happily give thanks to God.

Happy Thanksgiving. — MW

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 favour; 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 PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish Constitutions of government for our sasety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; 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; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.

They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

And although it be not always so plentiful as it was this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Edward Winslow,
Mourt’s Relation, 1622, Plymouth, Mass.


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