The History of Thanksgiving, Explained by a Hillsdale Professor
The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621. More than 200 years later in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation to make the last Thursday of November “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Lincoln’s proclamation came at the request of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale made it her mission for there to be a national day of thanksgiving every year. She hoped that Americans would recall their gratefulness for three things each year, says Adam Carrington, Hillsdale College associate professor of politics.
“Hale was arguing for … a combination of celebrating successful harvest, like was being done in 1621,” Carrington says, adding, “that’s why the timing of late November was apropos.”
Hale also wanted the day to be a “political memorial of Thanksgivings and what we are to be thankful for as a political community, but also religious thanks.”
Carrington joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the history of Thanksgiving, and to explain how we can all celebrate it as Hale hoped we would so many years ago.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Welcome to a special Thanksgiving bonus episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast.” I’m Virginia Allen.
We have all heard lots of stories about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, but the true religious roots of the holiday are often overlooked. Here with us to talk about the history of Thanksgiving and how freedom and a spirit of Thanksgiving work in tandem together is Hillsdale College associate professor of politics Dr. Adam Carrington. Professor, thank you so much for being with us today, and happy Thanksgiving.
Adam Carrington: Happy Thanksgiving to you-all. I am thankful to be on.
Allen: Let’s go all the way back to the beginning and talk a little bit just for a moment about the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving in November 1621. What were the Pilgrims celebrating?
Carrington: They were celebrating their first successful harvest. They had arrived the previous winter on Plymouth Rock, which they had named that, and had a very harsh winter. It’s not a good idea to land in New England with no houses and no crops in the dead of winter. And actually, nearly half of the people who had landed, I think there were 104 originally, about half had actually even passed due to sickness, due to malnourishment, due to other things. And with the help of some of the local Native Americans, they had been able to plant a crop.
They had been able to successfully harvest it that following fall. And so, Gov. William Bradford, the governor of the colony, had called for a feast to celebrate that they were starting to get on their own feet, and particularly that they believed that God had provided for them the means to continue, and to survive, and to get past the very harsh start that had begun their journey into this wilderness.
Allen: Do we know what they ate at that first Thanksgiving? What were those crops that they had successfully planted and harvested in Massachusetts?
Carrington: Corn in particular had been one thing that they had made. One of the great debates is, was there turkey? … And there is some discussion—Bradford in particular, I believe—mentions that there were lots of turkeys around, so that very well could be. But otherwise, geese and some other kinds of fowl were certainly consumed. Squash, some other things that do continue even to this day to be eaten. The Native Americans who joined the festivities probably brought fish, was one dish that they probably brought, as well.
So, some things that would later become part of the menu, even today. Some things that are not, I don’t know really anyone that eats fish for Thanksgiving, but some of the others did make an appearance that we can draw on as, I guess, a tradition that goes back now 401 years.
Allen: And after that first Thanksgiving, did the Pilgrims continue to have a time every single year where they said, “OK, this is dedicated time that we are taking to give thanks”?
Carrington: Not necessarily every single year. The history that comes after this is even the Pilgrims’ own action was part of a longer history before and after of particular days of thanks. And often those particular days of thanks were not necessarily always annual, even though they would often happen every year, but they wouldn’t happen the same time or necessarily for the exact same reason.
In this case, it was the celebration of a successful harvest, given it was the first one. But there would be days of thanksgiving for military victories, there would be days of thanksgiving for famines being lifted. For disease, if there was a particular disease running through the town, for it being lifted. So, it was a very regular thing to have these days of thanksgiving and often for harvest.
But the idea that we have today of every year at about the same time doing just a day of thanksgiving, it was much more occasional and specific to what was going on in the life of that community. And therefore, by the way, one could have more than one in a year. So, this was part of a longer tradition, but not necessarily the annual tradition in the way we think of it.
Allen: I guess that’s definitely not a bad thing. To have multiple days of thanksgiving in a year seems very appropriate, especially around events that are to be celebrated. But how did it come about then that we have one specific day that’s always the fourth Thursday in November where we’re sitting that day aside as the day of Thanksgiving?
Carrington: Two precursors I’d point to. One is, there was an occasional day of thanksgiving in 1789 that President Washington called to basically celebrate the successful ratification of the Constitution and implementation of that government. A new presidency, a Congress, all of those things. But when he called it was Thursday, Nov. 26th, 1789. That was basically the time now that we would do Thanksgiving. And fast forward, you start to get the regular celebration of Thanksgivings almost annually in New England in particular. By the 1840s, almost everyone in New England is doing it.
And by 1846, you have a woman named Sarah Hale, who I think is also known for coining “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She’s a New Englander, and she begins in 1846 a campaign to make it not just an infrequent occurrence nationally, not just a state-level holiday, but a national holiday. And what that culminates in is in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln is the first one to really start the annual tradition of it being the fourth Thursday of November every year.
And it basically has been since then. I think it was made by law in the 20th century under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt tried to switch it one year, tried to make it even earlier than what it is now, to extend the shopping season for Christmas. So, all the debates about when Christmas music could start a week earlier. But except for that exception, and Congress even stepped in and said, “No, no, no, we’re going back to the old way.”
It’s really since 1863 that’s been an annual thing on a Thursday toward the end of November.
Allen: Got it. And when we think about Thanksgiving, obviously, all the way back to the Pilgrims, and then how Sarah Josepha Hale advocated for it to become a national holiday, it has shifted, of course, over the years. And now what we have today looks pretty different from what the Pilgrims did, or maybe even from what Sarah Josepha Hale thought of when she thought of a day of Thanksgiving. If we were to celebrate Thanksgiving in the way that Sarah Josepha Hale advocated for, what do you think that would look like?
Carrington: Well, it probably wouldn’t have football. Although, I will say, the first collegiate football game on the Thanksgiving Day was in 1876. It was Princeton versus Yale. I believe Yale won 2-0, or I should have double-checked that. But what came together by the 1840s that Hale was arguing for was a combination of celebrating successful harvest, like was being done in 1621. That’s why the timing of late November was apropos.
A political memorial of thanksgivings and what we are to be thankful for as a political community, but also religious thanks. The idea of these days of thanksgiving that particularly is thanking God as the source of what the other two are doing, harvest and political reasons. And so, I think one that would bring together Hale’s would respect all three of those, if not equally, at least substantially. So, something that recognizes that God provides or that we have been provided bountifully as far as our bodies and food.
So, feasting was a big part of it then. That it involves a political idea that as a community we can be thankful for the blessings and the goods that we have been given, but that it also would have a religious element, that God is ultimately the source of these provisions for our bodies, our souls for us as human beings, for us as citizens.
And so, to the degree we reduce it to just eating and football would be incomplete. It would really need to bring together, yes, feasting, but feasting for those thanksgivings to God and those political thanksgivings, as well.
Allen: Well, in that discussion, we’ve been talking about both how Thanksgiving is in some ways a political holiday, but also deeply, deeply religious. You recently wrote an article discussing how some might see freedom intention with that spirit of gratitude. But you argue that no, they’re not intention, they actually really go hand in hand. But just explain this a little bit more, what you mean here.
Carrington: Right. Well, when you give thanks, and you have an attitude of thanksgiving, it really is acknowledging a debt you owe to someone else, a dependence even, or at least an acknowledgement of the need for help that one may have received or help that one has been given. And sometimes, we tend to think of freedom merely as a kind of independence, a kind of self-making, and a kind of “I get to do what I want because I’m in control of myself,” which one could see as the opposite of thanksgiving. “I don’t need to give thanks to anyone or anything. I just need to give thanks to myself for myself.”
And I think if you look at the American understanding of liberty and freedom, historically, that’s not the way we have thought about it. We have thought about our freedom as, yes, a right and a gift. It is a right for that God has given us in relation to each other, but it is also a gift God has given us as part of what it means to be human. And it’s also a gift in its exercise that has been given to us by our fathers, the Founding Fathers, and the subsequent generations that have preserved liberty.
The fact that freedom is a natural right doesn’t mean that it is easy to get or it’s easy to maintain. And so, I think the American form of liberty both acknowledges it, but also says that we owe a great debt to our Creator and to our forefathers for putting us on this path and for giving us this heritage. That means freedom isn’t ours to gain, it’s ours to preserve.
Allen: This Thanksgiving, how do you recommend that we can celebrate the holiday well, to its fullest, in the way that it ought to be celebrated?
Carrington: I think going back to those three streams that I mentioned before. Definitely feast. That is a way historically, and for Christians, if you look at Christianity and its effect, going back to the Bible, one of the biggest ways anyone ever celebrated in the Bible was feasting. And that’s been part of the Western heritage, as well. So, don’t deny that role, but feast as a way of being thankful.
And I think be particular about what we’re thankful for. And in these political times with high partisanship, and we just had a midterm election that did not go the way everyone … . Not everyone got what they wanted out of it, obviously. Be willing, while not denying the challenges we may face as a country or if one is religious, the idea that we might face religiously with secularism or other things, but be willing to step back and be thankful for what we do have, what is good.
And use that position of gratitude, not as a place of complacence, of saying, “Well, at least we’ve got that,” and stop. But use our gratitude even as a springboard for action, for how can we create or be part of making even new ways to be thankful for next year. Whether it be reforming things in the country, whether it be our religious devotion. So, gratitude does not need to breed complacency, but it does need to breed, I think, an ability to be thankful for what one does have.
Allen: Dr. Adam Carrington of Hillsdale College, thank you so much for your time. We really, really appreciate you joining us today.
Carrington: It’s been a pleasure. And as you said at the beginning, wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving tomorrow.
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