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Presidents and the Institutionalization of Thanksgiving

1939 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1939 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo Courtesy of the FDR Library, PD.

How have Presidents institutionalized Thanksgiving? There are three critical moments in the development of Thanksgiving as a formalized, national holiday. Not surprisingly, they center around three of the most studied presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

At the request of Congress, Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Day proclamation on October 3rd, 1789:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th 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.”

His statement is indicative of the both the character and structure of the holiday in early American history. Thanksgiving was--as it is today--a day of thanks; but specifically, it was an expression of gratitude toward “that great and glorious Being.” This first presidential thanksgiving took place on the last Thursday in November--a precedent that the next fourteen presidents would only loosely follow.

Nearly 75 years later, Lincoln, at the urging of a newspaper editor Sarah Josepha Hale, would issue another Thanksgiving Proclamation, which nationalized the holiday. The statement, which was written by Secretary of State William Seward, called upon Americans in the midst of civil war to remember the gifts they daily received:

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.

Between 1789 and 1863, states issued their own thanksgiving proclamations, and dates of the holiday varied. After Lincoln, Thanksgiving became an annual presidential responsibility, which charged future presidents to proclaim the last Thursday of November a holiday.

That precedent held for another 75 years, until FDR faced a crisis of calendar in 1939. In that year, there were five, not four, Thursdays in November--which, if Roosevelt had followed tradition, would have shortened the Christmas shopping season (retailers considered Christmas advertising prior to Thanksgiving improper). Fred Lazarus Jr. of Federated Department Stores successfully lobbied Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season in years in which November had five Thursdays. The executive move angered a number of states enough that in some places two Thanksgivings were celebrated. In 1941, Congress passed and Roosevelt signed into law a joint resolution making the fourth Thursday in November “a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as” Christmas, New Years, and the Fourth of July.

So, with the tip of the presidential signing pen, Thanksgiving Day has gone from an informal religious celebration, to a national holiday that marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

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