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A Presidential History of Thanksgiving

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Detail of a banner from a newspaper page titled "Thanksgiving."
The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, KS), November 30, 1899.

Thanksgiving has long been celebrated at the White House, but in addition to giving thanks, the presidency has a long history with the holiday.

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, but prior to 1941, Thanksgiving was not a fixed date on the calendar but whenever the President proclaimed it to be. President George Washington was the first to issue a proclamation for the holiday in 1789, designating Thursday, November 26 “for the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving.” This marked the first national celebration of the holiday under the new Constitution.

Detail of print from a 1789 newspaper with the title "A Proclamation."
“A Proclamation.” Gazette of the United-States (New York, NY), October 7, 1789.

Thomas Jefferson refused to endorse the tradition when he declined to make a proclamation in 1801. For Jefferson, supporting the holiday meant supporting state-sponsored religion since Thanksgiving is rooted in Puritan religious traditions. At the time, Jefferson’s political foes, the Federalists, often used his stance on the separation of church and state as a political weapon to try and convince Americans that he was an atheist who was making America less godly.

In November 1801, a Baptist group from Connecticut had written to Jefferson expressing concern that the state’s constitution did not explicitly provide religious liberty and they wanted to confirm that they would be protected under his presidency.  In a draft letter to the group, Jefferson addressed Federalist accusations by explaining that he considered declaring fasts or days of thanksgiving to be expressions of religion and that he opposed them because they were remnants of Britain’s reign over the American colonies. However, in the final public version of the letter, Jefferson did not comment on public celebrations of thanksgiving, but simply said he believed in “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Because Jefferson withheld his reasoning from the public, it made him open to Federalist political attacks.

Ironically, Jefferson had once declared a Thanksgiving while serving as governor of Virginia in 1779. He declared a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer. He later explained that he was willing to do so as governor, but not as president because he believed he could not endorse such a holiday without conflicting with the First Amendment. He also considered days of thanksgiving the responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

A detail of a portrait image of President Thomas Jefferson from a 1939 newspaper. Beneath the portrait is text describing how the president ignored the holiday because of it's religious significance.
Nogales International (Nogales, AZ), November 25, 1939.

Between 1846-1863, influential author and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, petitioned Congress and five different presidents (Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln) to create a national annual holiday for Thanksgiving. Hale was from New England where, by the mid-19th century, celebrating and giving thanks for abundant autumn harvests was an established tradition. She finally had success when in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln’s proclamation urged the nation to heal its wounds and restore “peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

A detail of 3 images from a 1933 newspaper. Image 1 is a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln and is situated in the top left; image 2 is a portrait of author and editor Sarah Josephine Hale and is situated in the top right. Between the two images is the headline "They Have Us Our Thanksgiving holiday." Below the portraits and headline is a landscape scene of a log home and barn in the snow. People are at the door of the home shaking hands with a man visiting, his horse just beside him. In front of the home is a bull hitched to a cart. The text under this image says "'Home for Thanksgiving'."
“They Gave us our Thanksgiving Holiday,” The Midland Journal (Rising Sun, MD), November 17, 1933.
Image detail Lincoln's handwritten 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation document. The Presidential seal is visible on the lower left. Beneath the image is text describing what the document is.
Lincoln’s proclamation. Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 26, 1916.

It is said that in 1865, President Andrew Johnson forgot to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation until a church delegation called on him. He then proclaimed that the first Thursday in December (the 7th) would be Thanksgiving. Although since Andrew Johnson, the holiday has been celebrated in late November, presidents before him had proclaimed Thanksgiving in various other months. For example, President James Madison proclaimed September 9th as the date in 1813 and proclaimed March 16th in 1815.

Detail image from a 1933 newspaper article describing the various dates outside of November that past Presidents had proclaimed Thanksgiving to fall on.
The Midland Journal (Rising Sun, MD), November 17, 1933.
Detail image from a 1933 newspaper featuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt (pictured right) carving a turkey and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured left). Both are seated at a dinner table that is filled with food dishes and decorations.
“When Roosevelt Carved Turkey,” Henderson Daily Dispatch (Henderson, NC), December 4, 1933.

When Franklin Roosevelt first became president in 1933, Thanksgiving was still not a fixed holiday, but left up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to declare the date the holiday would fall on that year. Up to that point, a precedent had been set that the holiday would be celebrated on the last Thursday of the month, but this tradition became difficult to continue during the Great Depression

Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving in office fell on November 30 because November had five Thursdays that year. Being that the holiday fell on the last day of the month meant that there were about 20 shopping days left before Christmas. Business leaders knew that statistically, most people waited to start their holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving and they feared they would lose crucial revenue that an extra week would bring. They urged President Roosevelt to move the holiday up a week to Thursday, November 23, but ultimately he decided to keep it on the last Thursday since it had been the tradition for the past seventy years. 

In 1939, the country was still recovering from the Great Depression when Thanksgiving threatened to fall on the last day of November once again. This time, however, President Roosevelt did move the date up a week to November 23, but the change proved to be controversial. He was called a “tradition-defier” in the press and some states decided to celebrate Thanksgiving on November 30 anyway. “I was quite unprepared for the storm it kicked up,” Roosevelt told the Skyland Post, “It looked to me for a while as if New England would secede from the union.” Family and friends who lived in different states, such as New York and Connecticut, did not have the same days off and were unable to celebrate together.

For two more years, President Roosevelt observed Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, but the level of public outrage led Congress to pass a law (77 H. J. Res. 41) on December 26, 1941, making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving. 

Detail image of an article from a 1941 newspaper with the headline "Bill 'Freezing' Date of Thanksgiving Signed."
“Bill ‘Freezing’ Date of Thanksgiving Signed,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 27, 1941.

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman presided over the first live turkey ceremony by the Poultry and Egg National Board and the event established an annual tradition at the White House. Originally, the birds presented were intended for the Thanksgiving meal. The presentation birds given to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1963 to 1967 had signs around their necks that read “Good Eating Mr. President.” 

Detail image from a 1952 newspaper of President Harry S. Truman and a large live turkey. The text below the image says "Turkey for the White House,," and describes how the turkey will be main feature of Truman's last Thanksgiving in the White House.
“Turkey for the White House,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 19, 1952.

Although President Kennedy spared the life of his turkey in 1963 stating, “We’ll just let this one grow,” the tradition of pardoning White House turkeys has been traced back to President Lincoln’s 1863 clemency to a turkey, as recorded in an 1865 dispatch by then White House reporter Noah Brooks. Brooks noted that Lincoln’s son Tad asked his father to spare the turkey’s life. Tad had adopted the turkey as a pet. It is said that although Lincoln did spare this turkey’s life for Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey was planned for Christmas dinner instead. 

Detail image from a 1963 newspaper of President John Kennedy (left) standing next to a turkey (center) that has a sign around its neck that says "Good Eating Mr. President." Two other men in suits are standing in back of the turkey and a third man in a suit (right) is adjusting the sign on the bird's neck with his hands.
“Turkey Gets Presidential Pardon,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), November 20, 1963.

It wasn’t until November 14, 1989 that President George H. W. Bush officially “granted a Presidential pardon” to an unnamed  turkey, a tradition that continues today. He quipped, “But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy—he’s presented a Presidential pardon as of right now—and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.” In 2004, his son, President George W. Bush, pardoned two turkeys named Biscuits and Gravy.

Detail image from a 1989 newspapers of President George Bush standing with a child and a turkey.
“Guess who isn’t coming to dinner,” Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH), November 18, 1989.
Detail image from a 1993 newspaper of President Bill Clinton pardoning a turkey. A man stands to the left of the president and a child stands in the foreground on the right.
“Clinton grants first presidential pardon — to a turkey,” The Sun (Baltimore, MD), November 25, 1993, p. 19A.
Detail image from a 2004 newspaper of President George W. Bush with a turkey.
“A Pardon with all the Trimmings, Two Turkeys Toasted, Not Roasted,” Washington Post (Washington, DC), November 18, 2004, p. C1.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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Comments (4)

  1. I have never understood why the celebration for a bountiful harvest is not held when the harvest is in.
    Autumn! For instance on the autumn equinox. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

  2. I thought that each US President will celebrate the Thanksgiving when he is in his official term. God bless you.

  3. Excellent article! Thank you!

  4. “Christians” are always quick to blame everyone else for “separation of church and state”. It’s in the Bible in two different places!

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