In September 1789, members of America’s first Congress approached the nation’s first president, George Washington, and asked him to call for a national Thanksgiving.
That seemingly benign request ignited a furor in Congress over presidential powers and states’ rights. Critics had two main concerns with the idea of a presidential proclamation to declare a national Thanksgiving.
First, some viewed Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, which put it outside of the purview of the president. Secondly, opponents of the measure believed the president did not have the authority to call a national Thanksgiving because that was a matter for governors.
It was a challenging time for the young nation. America had won the Revolutionary War but the country — made up of the 13 former colonies — was not fully unified yet. Calling a national Thanksgiving was a way to bring Americans together.
In the end, Washington did issue a proclamation, the first presidential proclamation ever, calling for a national “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He also came up with a solution designed to appease the opposition.
“When he issued the proclamation, he sent copies of that to governors of each of the states, 13 at the time, and asked them to call a national Thanksgiving on the day that Washington specified, the last Thursday of November,” says Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience,” and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “And, of course, Washington’s prestige being what it was, every governor did.”
Yet the battle over a national Thanksgiving did not end there.
As president, Thomas Jefferson refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations, even though he had done so as governor of Virginia. John Adams and James Madison did issue proclamations calling for days of “fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving.”
However, after Madison, no U.S. president issued a Thanksgiving proclamation until Abraham Lincoln. He did so in the middle of the U.S. Civil War in 1863 in an effort to unify the country.
“The Battle of Gettysburg had been fought a few months earlier. It was becoming clear that the Union was going to win,” Kirkpatrick says. “Every family in America was deeply affected by that terrible war. In the midst of all that, he was talking about the blessings of the country and what we had to be grateful for. And then he asks the people to come together as one, with one heart and one voice, to celebrate the holiday.”
Since then, every president has called for a national Thanksgiving.
It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who stirred the pot again in 1939, by moving Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November. Up until then, Americans had marked the holiday on the last Thursday in November, a date first specified by Lincoln.
The new date was Roosevelt’s bid to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and boost the nation’s economic recovery after the Great Depression.
“It was very annoying to some businesses. For example, the calendar industry, which had printed its calendars for the next year already,” Kirkpatrick says. “But one of the most vocal groups were colleges and universities, specifically the football coaches, because a tradition had developed of having Thanksgiving football championship games on Thanksgiving weekend.”
The divide over when to celebrate the holiday was so deep that half of the states adopted the new day, while the other half stuck to the traditional day. Roosevelt eventually reversed his decision, and Congress ended the long national debate over Thanksgiving in 1941 by passing a law making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday.
Today, Thanksgiving continues to unify millions of Americans who gather to celebrate the holiday with family and friends. Many will serve traditional foods like turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.
George Washington made a point of declaring that Thanksgiving should be celebrated by people of all faiths, a distinction that still resonates for Americans, including immigrants marking their first Thanksgiving.
“It’s 398 years since the so-called first Thanksgiving. It’s America’s oldest tradition,” Kirkpatrick says. “It’s tied up with a lot of seminal events in our history, such as the Revolution and the Civil War, and it’s also a rite of passage for new Americans. The idea is that once you celebrate Thanksgiving, you know you are truly participating in a national festival that cements your position as an American.”