In 1789, we celebrated our first official Thanksgiving as a Nation. On October 3, 1789, George Washington issued the Proclamation at the request of Congress. Then, as now, there was controversy surrounding the necessity, or even the seemliness, for the Federal government to issue such a proclamation.
Rep. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey presented a resolution in the House, asking that the House create a 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 to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina objected. He thought that a Thanksgiving was too European. He “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.”
Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker, also of South Carolina, objected on two points. “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,” he said, “let it be done by the authority of the several States.”
His second point had to do with Freedom of Religion, as outlined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving “is a religious matter,” he said, “and, as such, proscribed to us.” Even though the Bill of Rights would not be ratified for two more years, Congress had just approved the wording of the First Amendment, and that debate was in the forefront of their minds.
We don’t know the final vote, but Boudinot’s resolution was approved, a committee was formed, and the resolution was passed in the Senate as well. The joint committee presented the resolution to the President. On Oct. 3 George Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, in which he designated Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He asked Americans to render their “sincere and humble thanks” to God for “his kind care and protection of the People of this Country.”
The Proclamation was widely approved and accepted. The proclamation was printed in local papers, Thanksgiving Day was celebrated throughout the States, public functions organized, and church services held. Of course, special feasts of Thanksgiving were enjoyed by our citizens.
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor – and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be 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 interpositions 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.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions – to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually – to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed – to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord – To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us – and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.