Most people correctly associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, Plymouth and the Native Americans with whom the Pilgrims shared a community. Yet, the original Thanksgiving in the United States of America, offered gratitude to God for a new free nation, not just a bountiful harvest. It resembled the National Day of Prayer, more than the annual feast of fall foliage.

The Continental-Confederation Congress, which served as the national legislative body prior to the formal adoption of the Constitution, issued a proclamation on October 11, 1782 to create a “Solemn Thanksgiving to God for all His mercies” and recommended that all “testify their gratitude to God for His goodness by a cheerful obedience to His laws and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.”

The U.S. Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789. Half a year later, on September 25th, New Jersey Congressmen Elias Boudinot proposed that Congress recommend that President Washington proclaim a day of thanksgiving. Boudinot said he wanted to offer “an opportunity to all citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”

On October 3, 1789, seven months into his presidency, George Washington issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26, 1789, as “A day of public thanksgiving and prayer…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 interposition of His providence, which we experienced 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 enabled 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 hath been pleased to confer upon us.”

President Washington also proclaimed a Thanksgiving day in 1795, and Presidents Adams and Madison each declared two days of thanksgiving during their terms. President Jefferson, who served between Adams and Madison, did not declare any national days of thanksgiving during his presidency. Many believe this was due to his belief in the theology of Deism that God existed, but does not intervene in history. The governors of Massachusetts and New York also proclaimed such days of gratitude in the early 19th century. By 1858, 25 of the 32 states in the union at that time were celebrating some form of Thanksgiving.

It was not until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday.

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