We think of our national celebration of Thanksgiving as rooted in the harvest feast of seventeenth century Pilgrim settlers. But as an official government holiday, the celebration was inaugurated by George Washington, following a resolution of Congress, in 1789. Though he issued the proclamation on October 3, he set the date of the celebration for the fourth Thursday in November, a tradition we follow today.
Washington notes in the beginning of the Proclamation that “both Houses of Congress have by their Joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’” In fact, Congress was then an almost brand-new institution, having convened for the first time the previous March. The new Constitution had not become the working blueprint of our government until late in July 1788, by which time the necessary eleven of the original thirteen states had ratified that document. Hence in issuing the Proclamation, Washington was no doubt expressing a sense of relief and jubilation that the young nation’s extraordinary process of inventing a republican form of government had actually succeeded. The new government united regions with differing economic interests, led by statesmen with sharply different views of what a republic would require for its survival.
Professor Gordon Lloyd, who created our online exhibits on the creation of the Constitution and its Ratification, underlines the uniqueness of this achievement, which required Antifederalists to quell their very real concerns, well before a Bill of Rights was hammered out and agreed to:
“Historians tell us that the importance of the 1800 election is that it’s the first peaceful exchange of power from one party to another. Yes, that is extremely important. Here is another thing that’s important. What other country prior to the United States is informed that its government doesn’t work, sits for four months in convention, comes back for an entire year and debates and debates, and not a drop of blood was spilled?”
Something else to think about as we count our blessings next week.