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This Week in History:
November 28 - December 4, 1777*
National Day of Thanksgiving

November 2010

While it is traditional in discussions of the Thanksgiving Day holiday, to celebrate the abundance of the harvest, that approach eliminates the crucial political and historical elements of this event. For, beginning in 1777, when the U.S. Continental Congress declared the first national day of Thanksgiving, the occasion was always intimately linked with the accomplishment of vital national objectives, which the nation's political leadership, now always the President, considered to be an advancement for the solemn, principled purposes of the founding of the United States of America, and for which they thanked the bounty of the Creator.

In this presentation, there is no intent to denigrate the First Thanksgiving, which, given the purpose of the migration to the American continent, also had its political aspects. But, we concentrate here on the national declaration of Days of Thanksgiving in 1777, 1789, and 1863.

The 1777 Proclamation came approximately two weeks after the surrender of British Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga, a turning point in the War of Independence, significant enough to play a major role in convincing France to officially pledge its support to the American colonies. This proclamation read:

"Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to Him for benefits received, and to implore such further Blessings as they stand in need of; and it having pleased Him in His abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of His common providence, but also smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties; particularly in that He hath been pleased in so great a measure to prosper the means used for the support of our troops and to crown our arms with most signal success; it is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the 18th day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor...."

Throughout the rest of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress continued to proclaim yearly Thanksgiving days, but 1784 was the last one designated by the Congress.

It was George Washington who picked up the tradition again, in reverent celebration of the launching of the first Administration of the newly founded United States under its Constitution. Note here that the new President chose to highlight the commitment of the new nation to promoting "happiness," the means of "acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge," and the desire for the same blessings for "all sovereigns and nations." We quote in full:

"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 implore His Protection and Favor; 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 public Thanksgiving and Prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful Hearts the many 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 service 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 tranquillity, 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 safety 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 to acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors 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 public 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 shown kindness to 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."

President Washington's model was not followed annually at that point. That waited until the aftermath of another extraordinary event in our national life, the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863. On Oct. 3, 1863 President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November 1863, a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated by the whole nation. The whole text follows:

A Proclamation

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

-- Abraham Lincoln

From this time forward, every President has declared a National Day of Thanksgiving in November. Would that the noble spirit, and principles, of Presidents Washington and Lincoln, will soon come to characterize them again.

* Thanksgiving has been celebrated over a broad range of dates, mostly in late November, but the Pilgrims are said to have celebrated earlier in November, and the 1777 Proclamation chose Thursday, December 18. Presently, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the 4th Thursday in November, which is not always the last Thursday in November. Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it from the last to the 4th Thursday.  


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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