On Thanksgiving Day in past years, this blog has noted the contributions of Sarah J. Hale and Abraham Lincoln towards our national holiday. After a 36-year campaign of lobbying five American Presidents to establish Thanksgiving as an annual celebration, Sarah Hale finally succeeded in convincing President Lincoln to do so. On Oct. 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the declaration that stipulated the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving, a national holiday.
However, our nation’s first official Thanksgiving recognition occurred many years earlier, at the hand of the first president, George Washington.
1789 was a year of achievement and hope. In the fall of that year, the nation’s first Congress was wrapping up its first session in New York City, then the nation’s capital. Since April, they had been meeting at the former City Hall, at the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets, where the current Federal Hall now stands. A new Constitution had been ratified the year before. In addition, the Congress had organized three cabinet departments and the federal judiciary, and offered the amendments to the Bill of Rights to the states. The session’s most dramatic moment was the inauguration of our nation’s first president, George Washington, the hero of the Revolution (which is depicted in the image above).
At the end of September, as Congress prepared to adjourn, a Congressional committee asked the president to commemorate a special day. Following a resolution of Congress, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer”. George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation is the first proclamation issued by an American President.
Interestingly, the congressional deliberations that led to this first Thanksgiving were not without controversy. Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina objected on the grounds that a Thanksgiving was too European. He "did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings." Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker, also of South Carolina, raised two further objections. "Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?" he asked. "If a day of thanksgiving must take place," he said, "let it be done by the authority of the several States."
According to the "Papers of George Washington," compiled by the University of Virginia, Thanksgiving Day in 1789 was "widely celebrated throughout the nation." Newspapers around the country published the proclamation and announced plans for public functions in honor of the day. Religious services were held, and churches solicited donations for the poor. Washington himself sent $25 to a pastor in New York City, requesting that the funds be "applied towards relieving the poor of the Presbyterian Churches," in the words of his secretary.
We trust that you find this interesting.
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