The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. — Abraham Lincoln
With those words, within a month of delivering the Gettysburg Address, 150 years ago President Abraham Lincoln (in a proclamation actually penned by Secretary of State William Seward, of “Seward’s Folly” fame) declared that the fourth Thursday of every November would be considered an official United States’ holiday of Thanksgiving. In 1789 President George Washington also made a Thanksgiving proclamation, and while “Congress overwhelmingly agreed to Washington’s suggestion, the holiday did not yet become an annual event.” The nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, expressed some hesitancy to endorse a Thanksgiving proclamation in a nation based upon the separation of church and state. In response to Reverend Samual Miller’s request for a national day of thanksgiving and prayer, Jefferson wrote:
I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises . . . . Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. . . . Civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
It appears that the presidents who followed Jefferson agreed with him. No official Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by any president between 1815 and October 3, 1883 — the day Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving proclamation.
The full text of President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclaimation is here.