The next president to designate a day of national thanksgiving for general blessings was Lincoln in 1863. That’s not to say Americans did not celebrate Thanksgiving during the intervening years. They did. By the time of the Civil War, just about every state had established an annual day of thanksgiving. The holiday was celebrated by a day off from work, attendance at religious services, and, usually, a festive family gathering. The date was set by the individual governors, who sometimes coordinated but usually didn’t. The result was that while most states celebrated in November, a few marked the day in October or early December.
The story of how Thanksgiving became a regular national holiday is itself a classic American story of how an enterprising individual with a good idea can have an impact. In this case, a penniless young widow from New Hampshire, Sarah Josepha Hale, rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of her era, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and used that position to generate grassroots support for a national Thanksgiving.
Mrs. Hale’s genius as an editor was to focus on American topics and American authors at a time when other magazines typically reprinted articles pirated from English publications. She used every feature of her magazine—editorials, short stories, recipes—to encourage the celebration of Thanksgiving. At the same time, she conducted a letter-writing campaign to presidents, governors, congressmen, and other influential figures.
In 1863—in the midst of what is arguably the bloodiest year in American history—Lincoln, inspired by a letter from Mrs. Hale, took the extraordinary step of naming a national day of thanksgiving. He called on every American, North and South, to celebrate Thanksgiving “with one heart and one voice.” Following Washington’s example, he set Thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November. Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation was the first in an unbroken string of annual Thanksgiving proclamations by every subsequent president up to the present day. It is regarded as the beginning of our national Thanksgiving holiday.
But there remained a snag. While the overwhelming majority of governors went along in their state proclamations with the dates that Lincoln and later presidents designated, they were under no obligation to do so. The president’s proclamation had no force of law outside the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. That would require an act of Congress. For that, the country would have to wait until 1941.
In August 1939, FDR announced that he had decided to move Thanksgiving back a week—from what had by then become the traditional last Thursday of the month. The country was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and Roosevelt’s reasoning was economic. There were five Thursdays in November that year, which meant that Thanksgiving, if celebrated on the last, would fall on the 30th and leave only 20 shopping days till Christmas. Moving the holiday to November 23 would allow Americans more time to shop and—so the President’s dubious theory went—spend more money, thus lifting the economy.
Roosevelt, usually an astute politician, made the mistake at a press conference of saying there was “nothing sacred” about the date of Thanksgiving. He might as well have suggested that roast beef replace turkey as the star of the holiday meal. His announcement was front-page news the next day, and the public outcry was swift and vociferous.
“We here in Plymouth [Massachusetts] consider the day sacred,” the town’s first selectman said. “Plymouth and Thanksgiving are almost synonymous, and merchants or no merchants I can’t see any reason for changing it.” College football coaches were apoplectic, since most colleges scheduled their football seasons, which ended on Thanksgiving weekend, well in advance. Alf Landon, FDR’s Republican opponent in 1936, compared the President to Hitler.
The date of Thanksgiving in 1939 became a political hot potato. Politicians in every state had to read public opinion, examine the local business climate, and consider political loyalties before deciding which date to endorse. In the end, 23 states chose to stick with November 30, while 22 celebrated on November 23. Three states—Texas, Mississippi, and Colorado—decided to celebrate on both days.
It wasn’t long before people started referring to November 30 as the “Republican Thanksgiving” and November 23 as the “Democratic Thanksgiving” (or as some had it, “Franksgiving”). Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire asked sarcastically: “Has the President given any thought to abolishing winter?”
In 1941, President Roosevelt admitted defeat and declared that Thanksgiving would return to its traditional date. Congress passed legislation fixing the date of all future Thanksgivings as the fourth Thursday of November and FDR signed it into law.