Thursday, November 26, 2015

The First Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale was for 40 years the editrix of Godey's Lady's Book, the most influential periodical in 19th century America. Hale was born in New Hampshire, and though she eventually moved to Philadelphia to edit Godey's, she remained a typical New Englander in two respects: first, she was an American nationalist; and second, she was fervently opposed to slavery.

In antebellum America, being an American nationalist meant being opposed to people who put local or sectional loyalty above loyalty to the country as a whole. This put Hale firmly in opposition to Southerners who constantly threatened to secede from the United States to protect the institution of slavery. One of the ways Hale sought to promote American nationalism was to agitate for the adoption of Thanksgiving, the traditional annual New England harvest festival, as a national holiday. At the time, there were only two uniquely American national holidays: Washington's Birthday on February 22, and Independence Day on July 4.

Hale contacted successive presidents from Zachery Taylor onwards, urging them to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, but it wasn't until 1863 that her campaign came to fruition. By then, Southern slaveowners had finally carried out their threat to secede, driving the country into civil war. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of the year, and as U.S. forces advanced into rebellious areas of the country, any slaves they encountered were automatically freed. Inevitably, by the time the slaveowners' rebellion was finally put down, slavery would be a dying institution in the United States, and the chief mainstay of sectionalism would be gone. The time was ripe for the promotion of a new national American identity, and so Lincoln accepted Hale's proposed new national holiday. On October 3, Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. The holiday became permanently established, always by presidential proclamation, and always on the last Thursday in November.

In the late 19th century, as European immigration steadily increased, the Thanksgiving holiday was adapted to the program of assimilating the new arrivals. In an echo of Hale's New England origins, the holiday was associated with the first harvest feast given by the Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth Plantation in the fall of 1621, and that association has continued ever since. The New England setting helped ground the immigrants and their children in the early history of their new country (and also served to de-emphasize the older slave-based Jamestown settlement).

In 1939, the Thanksgiving holiday was repurposed again by President Franklin Roosevelt, who attempted to move it back one week to the next-to-the-last Thursday in November in order to lengthen the holiday shopping season, and thus act as an economic stimulus. A tug-of-war between Roosevelt and Congressional Republicans over the date of Thanksgiving went on for two years, until Congress officially established the date as the fourth Thursday of November in December 1941. Since then, Thanksgiving has combined all three functions: as a national holiday, as a commemoration of the 1621 Plymouth harvest feast, and as the start of the national end-of-the-year holiday shopping spree.

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