the controversy over the first thanksgiving - 11/23/16

Today's selection -- from Thanksgiving by Melanie Kirkpatrick. Religious controversy attended George Washington's 1789 proclamation of the very first Thanksgiving Day:

"On Friday, September 25, 1789, [the first U.S.] Congress was about to recess when Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey rose to introduce a resolution. He asked the House to create a joint committee with the Senate to 'wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would 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 signal favors of Almighty God.' Boudinot made special reference to the Constitution, which had been ratified by the requisite two-thirds of the states in 1788. A day of public thanksgiving, he believed, would allow Americans to express gratitude to God for the 'opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.' ...

George Washington's Thanksgiving

Proclamation, 1789

"Boudinot's resolution sparked a vigorous debate. The opposition was led by two members from South Carolina, Aedanus Burke and Thomas Tudor Tucker. Both disagreed with Boudinot on the proper role of the executive branch: Boudinot wanted a strong central government, while the South Carolinians favored a weak one. Another source of difference was religion. Boudinot was a devout Presbyterian -- trustee of the Pres­byterian-founded College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and later the first president of the American Bible Society. The religious affiliations of Burke and Tucker are not known, but both raised con­cerns about the implications for religion in the new constitutional order.

"Burke, who had been born in Ireland, objected to Boudinot's reso­lution on the grounds that a day of thanksgiving was too 'European.' He 'did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.' His argument was somewhat ob­scure. In Europe, he explained, both parties at war frequently sang the Te Deum, a hymn of praise sung in the Catholic Mass. Burke apparently was objecting to what he viewed as the hypocrisy of both the victor and the loser singing a hymn of thanksgiving.

"Tucker raised two objections. The first had to do with the separa­tion of powers as enumerated in the new federal Constitution. Tucker argued that the federal government did not have the authority to pro­claim days of thanksgiving; that was among the powers left for individ­ual state governments. 'Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?' he asked. 'If a day of thanksgiving must take place,' he said, 'let it be done by the authority of the several States.'

"Tucker's second reservation had to do with separation of church and state. Proclaiming a day of thanksgiving 'is a religious matter,' he ar­gued, 'and, as such, proscribed to us.' The Bill of Rights would not be ratified until 1791 but Congress had just approved the wording of the First Amendment, and the debate about the proper role of religion was fresh in everyone's mind. The First Amendment prohibits any law re­specting an establishment of religion.

"It fell to a New Englander to stand up in support of Thanksgiv­ing. Connecticut's Roger Sherman praised Boudinot's resolution as 'a laudable one in itself.' It also was 'warranted by a number of prec­edents' in the Bible, he said, 'for instance the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple.'

"In the end, the Thanksgiving resolution passed -- the precise vote is not recorded -- and the House appointed a committee made up of Representatives Boudinot, Sherman, and Peter Silvester of New York. The resolution moved to the Senate, which quickly approved it. Senators William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut and Ralph Izard of
South Carolina were appointed to the joint committee.

"On September 28, the senators reported that the joint commit­tee had delivered the congressional resolution to the president. Five days later, on October 3, George Washington issued his now-famous Thanksgiving proclamation. He designated Thursday, November 26, 1789, as 'a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.' Washington opened his proclamation by asserting that it is 'the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God' and 'to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.' He asked the American people to observe a day of thanksgiving and prayer by 'acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceable to establish a form of gov­ernment for their safety and happiness.' ...

"Washington sent a copy of his proclamation to each of the thirteen governors along with a kind of cover note known as his 'Circular to the Governors of the States.' He wrote: 'I do myself the honor to enclose to your Excellency a Proclamation for a general Thanksgiving which I must request the favor of you to have published and made known in your State in the way and manner that shall be more agreeable to you.'

"Note that the president used the words 'request' and 'favor' when asking the governors to distribute his proclamation. Similarly, Con­gress's joint resolution had asked Washington to 'recommend' to the 'people of the United States' a day of thanksgiving. This was the first presidential proclamation, and Washington's language suggests that he understood that it did not carry the force of law.

"In the event, the proclamation was well heeded. According to the editors of The Papers of George Washington, compiled by the Universi­ty of Virginia, Thanksgiving Day was 'widely celebrated throughout the nation.' Newspapers around the country published the president's proclamation, and states announced plans for public functions in hon­or of the day. Religious services were held, and churches solicited dona­tions for the indigent. ...

"His Thanksgiving proc­lamation of 1789 set the standard for similar proclamations by future presidents, a list that includes James Madison and then every presi­dent since Abraham Lincoln.

"There is a notable absence in the list of presidents who issued Thanks­giving proclamations: Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the United States famously declined to do so. Jefferson had principled reasons for refusing to issue such a proc­lamation, which he explained in a letter to a New York City minister by the name of Samuel Miller, dated January 23, 1808. The Reverend Miller had written the president soliciting his views on whether his con­stitutional powers extended to naming a day of national Thanksgiving and prayer. Jefferson wrote in reply that he did 'not consider [himself] authorized' to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation because the Consti­tution prohibits a president from 'intermeddling with religious institutions."


Melanie Kirkpatrick


Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience


Encounter Books


2016 Melanie Kirkpatrick


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