Today’s guest post is by Fred W. Beuttler, Ph.D., the former Deputy Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives. Fred is Associate Dean of Liberal Arts Programs at University of Chicago, Graham School.
The First Federal Thanksgiving
Today, November 26, 2019, marks the 230th anniversary of the first Federal Thanksgiving in 1789, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to “Almighty God” for the U.S. Constitution.
In late September, 1789, on one of the last days of the first session of the First Federal Congress, the most productive in history, Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed that the American people should “with one voice” give to “Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.” Boudinot introduced a resolution for the President to recommend “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 Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”
Predictably, as it was Congress, there was some grumbling. One congressman complained that it was “mimicking of European customs,” while another suggested that maybe the people were not inclined to give thanks for the Constitution, at least until they could see if it did give them safety and happiness. It was a state, not a federal function, one argued, “a business which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.” This could have been a significant objection, as the previous day the House had passed what would become the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
But the members of Congress did not see this call for a national day of thanksgiving as at all contradicting religious freedom. Roger Sherman of Connecticut justified the practice of a day of thanksgiving as laudable in itself, referring to “holy writ” at the dedication of Solomon’s temple, an example “worthy of Christian imitation,” and Boudinot cited precedents “from the practice of the late Congress.”
The House of Representatives carried the resolution in the affirmative. The Senate agreed a couple of days later, and that same day they also agreed to transmit copies of the Bill of Rights to the several states. A joint committee of Congressmen and Senators called on President George Washington to recommend a day of national thanksgiving to “Almighty God” for the Constitution.
A few days later, President Washington submitted the following proclamation, calling upon the American people to assign Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of public thanksgiving for the national Constitution:
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 and 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 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 enable 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 has 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 shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase 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.
So this Thanksgiving of 2019, remember that the First Congress and our first President called upon all American citizens to observe “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to “Almighty God” for the U.S. Constitution and our civil and religious liberty. That is something for which truly to be thankful.
(End of Dr. Beuttler’s post)
My (Throckmorton) sentiments would have been with the Congressman who objected on grounds that Congress should not direct religious activity. In fact, I think this was a mistake and not in keeping with the First Amendment passed just the day before. However, as Fred documented in his post, the Congressmen had their justifications and the majority prevailed.
My view is that Jefferson and Madison (after he left the presidency) were correct about national days of thanksgiving as religious observances. Jefferson refused to commemorate them saying:
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
Although Madison observed days of prayer during his presidency, he later expressed regret about it.
They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Christianity, is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one government in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But reason and the principles of the Christian religion require that all the individuals composing a nation even of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected through the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives. In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated widely from others, and where no agreement could take place through the former, the interposition of the latter is doubly wrong.
I do understand how judges now interpret the First Amendment through the actions of the Congress. However, I think Jefferson and Madison had the right application.
In 2014, I asked several historian colleagues to opine about what the public should know about Thanksgiving. This is one post in that series The series will run through at least Thanksgiving Day.
To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019.