Postcards showing Abraham Lincoln ascending to heaven to meet George Washington.
Courtesy Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum of Lincoln Memorial University.

Thank you, Mr. President – Lincoln and the Thanksgiving Proclamation

4 min read

There’s plenty to be thankful for on Thanksgiving, but one person is rarely thanked around the dinner table. That person is Abraham Lincoln, and his connection to this American holiday may surprise you.

The First Thanksgiving

The tradition of Thanksgiving began long before Lincoln. While Virginia and Texas, among other places, claim the first “Thanksgiving,” today the moniker most often refers to a meal enjoyed by English pilgrims and Wampanoag people in November of 1621, after the colonists’ first successful corn harvest. To express gratitude for the colony’s Native American allies, Governor William Bradford called for a three-day feast. While the food and the atmosphere differed greatly from the modern traditions we associate with Thanksgiving, the memory and mythology of this initial gathering paved the way for our current celebrations.

In 1798, George Washington penned the first declaration of Thanksgiving. He encouraged all Americans to express gratitude for the end of the Revolutionary War with their own feasts, surrounded by family and friends. Many presidents, such as John Adams and James Madison, followed suit, issuing their own declarations of Thanksgiving—but the date was never regulated. Each president decided when a day of Thanksgiving would occur.

Climate of the Civil War and Lincoln’s Proclamation

In 1863, the third year of the Civil War, the nation was torn apart by polarizing politics and bloody battles. It was in this year that thousands lost their lives at places like Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chickamauga. While there were glimmers of hope, such as the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, many saw no end to the fighting and destruction.

1909 postcard of two large turkeys in the grass with a title reading, "Happy Thanksgiving"
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Thanksgiving greetings.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909. ut id elit.

One of the many letters that crossed the president’s desk during September 1863 was a proposition by writer Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale generated a campaign to formalize a day of thanksgiving, published magazine articles on the subject and sent correspondence to President Lincoln and to every governor of U.S. states and territories. She wrote to Lincoln:

You may have observed that for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day in all the states; it now needs national recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Would it not be fitting and patriotic … to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Only days after receiving Hale’s letter at the White House, Lincoln went further than any president before him and declared, on October 3, 1863, that the final Thursday of November be observed indefinitely as a national holiday of Thanksgiving. In his proclamation, Lincoln asked all Americans to express thanks to God and 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.”

A Movable Feast

It is interesting to note that in the year of Lincoln’s assassination the Thanksgiving date became a bit of a “movable feast.” In 1865, President Andrew Johnson instead recommended  designating the first Thursday of December as Thanksgiving, only to return to Lincoln’s November preferences in 1866. The 1866 proclamation listed many reasons for giving thanks:

The civil war that so recently closed among us has not been anywhere reopened; foreign intervention has ceased to excite alarm or apprehension; intrusive pestilence has been benignly mitigated; domestic tranquility has improved, sentiments of conciliation have largely prevailed, and affections of loyalty and patriotism have been widely renewed; our fields have yielded quite abundantly, our mining industry has been richly rewarded, and we have been allowed to extend our railroad system far into the interior recesses of the country, while our commerce has resumed its customary activity in foreign seas.

These great national blessings demand a national acknowledgment.

In 1869, the first year of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, November’s third Thursday, Nov. 18, became that year’s official day of thanksgiving. From 1870 to 1939 the holiday reverted to the final Thursday of November. Then, during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday in part to elongate the holiday shopping season and boost the economy. This raised quite a stir.

Presidential proclamations only apply to federal workers and residents of the District of Columbia, but most governors do follow suit. In the case of 1939, however, just 23 states elected Roosevelt’s proclamation to celebrate on November 23, while another 23 states kept their feast on the final Thursday of the month. It wasn’t until 1942, the year after Congress passed a law, when all Americans would celebrate a legal Thanksgiving holiday together on the fourth Thursday of November.

As we gather with friends and family to give thanks this year, let’s remember Abraham Lincoln and those who guaranteed a time for us to connect, reflect and be grateful.

Kelsey S. Johnston is former Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communications Intern and holds a Masters in Museum Studies from George Washington University. She is passionate about the use of new media and digital technology within museums as a means to educate and communicate with visitors, both in person and online.

Lauren Beyea is the Associate Director of Communications and Marketing at Ford’s Theatre, where she oversees media relations. She is editor of the Ford’s Theatre Blog. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenBeyea.

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Kelsey S. Johnston is a former Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communications Intern