By MARSHA MERCER
Thanksgiving, now deeply entrenched in modern American life, got off to a shaky start.
Yes, there were prayers of thanksgiving in Virginia and harvest feasting in Massachusetts in the 17th century. But the first Congress squabbled over even asking the president to issue a thanksgiving proclamation.
In September 1789, a representative from New Jersey proposed that a committee from the House and Senate visit President George Washington and ask him to recommend to the people a day giving thanks for the many favors of Almighty God, especially the “opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”
Two representatives from South Carolina objected -- one to the “mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings” and the other to interfering in matters beyond the proper scope of Congress, according to an account in The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia.
“Why should the president direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” asked Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina. “They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.”
Besides, said Tucker, Congress had no business getting involved in religion, and, he added, “If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several states.”
Despite the opposition, the resolution passed, and a committee did visit Washington, who issued a proclamation naming Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, a day to unite in “sincere and humble thanks.”
Citizens and churches took to the first Thanksgiving, but the observance wasn’t set in November. Washington later proclaimed Feb. 19, 1795, a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”
The second president, John Adams, issued proclamations for May 9, 1798, and April 25, 1799, but they weren’t officially for thanksgiving. We’d never recognize our feast-football-shop extravaganza in Adams’ day of “solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer.”
But when Thomas Jefferson became president, the proclamations of prayer or thanksgiving ceased. For eight years, he refused to issue any on the ground that it would have infringed on the separation of church and state.
During the War of 1812, Congress asked President James Madison to declare a day of “public humiliation and fasting and prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States,” and he chose Jan. 12, 1815. A few months later, Madison named the second Thursday in April 1815 as a day of thanksgiving for the blessing of peace.
After that, no president until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving.
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States called for a day of fasting and humiliation in 1861 “in view of impending conflict,” and Lincoln proclaimed three days of thanksgiving for battle victories in 1862 and 1863.
For the national Thanksgiving holiday, we can thank Sarah Josepha Hale, an author and editor of Godey’s Lady Book magazine who campaigned tirelessly. By the 1850s, she had successfully lobbied more than 30 states and territories to put Thanksgiving on their calendars. Her goal, though, was a national holiday, which she believed would unify the country.
With the nation torn apart by Civil War, Hale wrote Lincoln on Sept. 28, 1863, asking him to use his executive authority to give Thanksgiving national recognition “to become permanently an American custom and institution.”
Days later, on Oct. 3, Lincoln signed a proclamation, actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, that the last Thursday of November would be “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
Thanksgiving became our holiday on the last Thursday of November, not by law but by tradition.
But in 1939, when the last Thursday fell on Nov. 30, with just 24 days before Christmas, retailers begged Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week to lengthen the Christmas shopping season.
FDR proclaimed Thanksgiving to be on Nov. 23. His edict applied only to the District of Columbia and federal workers, but angry letters poured into the White House.
Sixteen states refused to accept the change. Two Thanksgivings were celebrated until 1941, when Congress stepped in.
A representative from Michigan declared that only Congress could change the date, “not the fancy or whim of any president.”
Congress set the federal holiday as the fourth Thursday in November. It may be one of the few things for which we all can be thankful.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.