1777 in Bitter Weather and Open Fields
the first Thanksgiving of the New United States of America
We enjoy Thanksgiving with our family and friends in the warmth and safety of our homes, grateful for so many things that God has bestowed upon us throughout the year. And rightly so. I do wonder though; how many of us would be thankful if we were in the shoes (or without shoes, as many were) of those who were outside in the middle of nowhere, hungry, exhausted, and freezing in 1777? This was the scenario for many on the first Thanksgiving of the new United States of America.
It occurred on December 18, 1777, when then General George Washington and his army, as instructed by the Continental Congress, stopped in bitter weather in the open fields on their way to Valley Forge to mark the occasion. This date was set a month and a half earlier on November 1 as a commemoration of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga after the surrender of General John Burgoyne and 5,000 British troops in October. In proclaiming this first national day of thanksgiving, Congress wrote:
It is therefore recommended to the Legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for solemn THANKSGIVING and PRAISE; That at one Time and with one Voice the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor”
Between the time Congress proclaimed the day of Thanksgiving on November 1 and the actual celebration on December 18, another milestone occurred. On December 17, just one day prior to the celebration, the French formalized a military and trade alliance with the rebelling states. The victory at Saratoga in October had convinced the French king that the Americans might be worthy allies, adding a deeper level of gratefulness to this first proclamation.
Merely having a national day of thanksgiving was a tremendous step forward in creating an American identity. Previously, the colonies had celebrated individually or as part of the British Empire. Now they had experienced an event that had affected them all and formalized a celebration that involved them all. With the French alliance, they had an ally who supported them all. Americans had just taken a major step forward on their trail from colonies to states, and from states to nation.
It wasn’t until 1789, after George Washington had become the first president of the United States, that November 26, 1789, was declared as a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer.”
Thanksgiving did not actually become a nationally recognized holiday until a century and a half later. There were many attempts to formalize it, but Sarah Josepha Hale deserves mention at this point, who for 36 years published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians to make it a national holiday. Abraham Lincoln finally heeded her request in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan, known derisively as Franksgiving, was met with passionate opposition, but in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
I thought it most appropriate to include here the original proclamation. I hope you will take a minute to read through it. As you do, remember what this great man, whom we should hold in high esteem, had previously endured and the amount of personal sacrifice he offered in order to help create a nation founded upon principles of truth.
Thanksgiving Proclamation, by George Washington, in 1789:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “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 and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.