1789 Two Hundred Years Ago

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In celebration of the formation of a viable government under the new Constitution, President George Washington proclaimed November 26 to be the first national Thanksgiving Day. The President spent the day worshiping at an Episcopal church in Manhattan and sent a small donation to provide “provisions and beer” to debtors locked up in the city jail.

While most of the nation offered prayers of thanks for the new Constitution, opponents of Washington’s Federalist administration declared the holiday proclamation a usurpation of States’ Rights. The South Carolina representative Thomas Tucker argued that Americans “may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.” While the federal government did not declare another Thanksgiving holiday until 1795, New England governors continued to proclaim an annual Thanksgiving in their own states.

The national government reserved Thanksgiving only for special occasions until 1863, when President Lincoln, spurred by the tenacious lobbying of Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book , asked his fellow citizens to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Thanksgiving has been a federal holiday ever since.