Most national holidays carry both cultural and political burdens. The observance of Thanksgiving in the United States is unusual, however, in the degree to which its political message is tacit. Far more is in play than the celebration of abundance and football games. In its current form Thanksgiving, like Memorial Day, originated in the American Civil War of 1861 CE – 1865 CE.
Many Americans would trace Thanksgiving’s roots back to 1621 when the Pilgrim colony of Plymouth marked its fall harvest with a feast. A good crop would certainly merit commemoration: after the first winter, there were only 42 survivors of the 102 Mayflower passengers who disembarked in 1620. Many years would pass before the plantation became demographically and economically secure.
The 1621 harvest feast in Plymouth is documented, though not as thoroughly as might be wished. It was attended by about 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. It could reasonably be seen as a Native American social event to which their poor English neighbors were invited. It was far from unique in its theological implications. The Pilgrims declared many days of thanksgiving, dedicated to prayer to express their gratitude for the blessings they had received, including military victories and rains ending droughts. Puritan clergy in New England continued to proclaim days of thanksgiving unconnected to the 1621 feast throughout the 17th century.
Such days of thanksgiving were not unique to the Plymouth colony. In European colonies in North America in the 17th century, days of thanksgiving were also proclaimed in Virginia, Florida, and Texas. The Jamestown colony in Virginia, founded 13 years earlier than Plymouth [1607 and 1620 respectively], experienced death rates exceeding those in New England: for example, in Jamestown in May 1610, only 60 survivors remained of the 240 people who lived there the previous November. The death rates in Jamestown remained high for many years.
George Washington proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving, designating November 26, 1789 “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.” This was not the Pilgrim-story holiday known as Thanksgiving today. Nor did Washington’s act lead to a regular national holiday. States in New England observed days of thanksgiving in the 18th and early 19th centuries, with the date varying from place to place. The Pilgrim holiday tradition was unobserved if at all popularly known in the American South.
National observance of Thanksgiving with reference to the Pilgrims of Plymouth dates back only to October 3, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to occur on the last Thursday in November.
On September 8, 1863 Sarah Hale had sent Lincoln a letter proposing Thanksgiving be made a national holiday. Hale, who is credited with writing the nursery poem Mary Had a Little Lamb, had been lobbying for a national observance of Thanksgiving since 1846, writing letters to four presidents preceding Lincoln: Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. She also made efforts to preserve Washington’s Mount Vernon estate as a historical site important to both the South and the North, and was instrumental in raising funds for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument.
The fall of 1863 seems like a curious time for Lincoln to be creating a holiday, considering the Battle of Chickamauga [September 19 -20] and the difficulties of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, which was besieged in Chattanooga. At the time there were only two Federal holidays: Washington’s Birthday and the 4th of July [Independence Day]. It might appear as though the president had more important things to do.
But Lincoln had a keen sense regarding political symbols. Prior to the Civil War the United States had two competing founding stories: that of cavaliers in Virginia, leading to a stratified agricultural society based on slave labor and ruled by local aristocrats; and that of religious refugees in New England, developing towards a commercial and industrial society dedicated to representative “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Nationwide observance of Thanksgiving based on the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest festival could provide a unifying myth of the founding of the United States.
Needless to say, the South was not originally enthusiastic about the new holiday. Thanksgiving made extremely slow progress in the former Confederate states until well after Reconstruction was ended by the dubiously elected Rutherford B. Hayes [president 1877 -1881].
As the 20th century progressed, Thanksgiving’s political and social implications were largely ignored in favor of robust celebration of American abundance, overeating, and sports contests. By the late 1970s, history had become so obscured that white society in the South was well on its way towards becoming largely Republican to protest the civil rights efforts of Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party. Many African-Americans in the South had previously abandoned the party of Lincoln for the Democrats after Republicans bungled the response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which also gave impetus to the migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt attracted most of the remainder to the Democratic Party with the New Deal [1933 – 1938].
But Thanksgiving, commemorated with scant appreciation of many of its most serious historical and political connotations, succeeded in becoming a truly national holiday. Being American means, among other things, that you can sometimes choose your ancestors.
- William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is indispensable for an understanding of Pilgrim history in North America.
- Benjamin Woolley’s portrait of the founding of Jamestown in Savage Kingdom is incisive and unsparing.
- Peter Gomes and James Baker deal with the history of the holiday in Thanksgiving.
- John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America deals with the event that discredited Republicans in the eyes of many southern African Americans, and prompted their large scale migration to northern cities.