There are two eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving, written by Pilgrims William Bradford and Edward Winslow—although I should stipulate that the word “thanksgiving” does not appear in them. If you could travel back to 1621 and ask a Pilgrim to define “Thanksgiving Day,” his answer might surprise you. For the Pilgrims, “days of thanksgiving” were not marked by feasting, family, and fellowship—the happy hallmarks of the holiday we now celebrate—but by religious observance. They were called to express gratitude to God for specific beneficences such as successful harvests, propitious weather, or military victories. For the Pilgrims and other early immigrants to our shores, a “thanksgiving day” was set aside for prayer and worship.
From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first Thanksgiving in New England took place two years after the event we recall as the first. It was July 1623, and the governor declared a day of thanksgiving in gratitude for rainfall that had saved their harvest. These religious days, observed in all 13 colonies, were the most direct influence on the development of Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today.
At some point in the 1600s, each New England colony began to designate annual thanksgiving days, usually in the autumn. These celebrations were deemed “general” thanksgivings—that is, they weren’t called for a specific event or blessing, but for ordinary, everyday blessings. And they were usually designated by civil authorities rather than religious ones.
Connecticut was the first colony to name a specific day of general thanksgiving—September 18, 1639—and make it an annual event. This decision was controversial and the subject of spirited theological debates. Opponents argued that an annual thanksgiving for general reasons would lead people to take God’s generosity for granted. But the idea caught on. Massachusetts was the last holdout, not following Connecticut’s lead until late in the 17th century.
Moving to the 18th century, the story of the political controversy surrounding our first Thanksgiving as a nation speaks volumes about our civil and religious freedoms.
The controversy began on September 25, 1789, in New York City, then the seat of our federal government. The venue was the inaugural session of Congress. The senators and representatives had been meeting since March 4 at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan and were about to take a well-deserved break 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.” Boudinot made special reference to the Constitution, which had been ratified 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.”
This resolution sparked a vigorous debate. There were two objections. The first concerned federalism. A congressman from South Carolina argued that the federal government did not have the authority to proclaim days of thanksgiving; that was among the powers left to 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, let it be done by the authority of the several States.”
The South Carolinian’s second objection was that proclaiming a day of thanksgiving “is a religious matter, and, as such, is 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.
In the end, the resolution passed. It moved to the Senate, which quickly approved it, and on October 3, President Washington issued his now-famous Thanksgiving Proclamation. He designated Thursday, November 26, 1789, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He did not decree a Thanksgiving. Rather, cognizant of the limits of his power, he asked that the governors of the 13 states comply with his request. He also made it clear that Thanksgiving was an inclusive holiday—not just for Christians but for Americans of every faith.