Setting aside one day to give national thanks to God for the blessings of the prior year and beseech him for future blessings had been frequently practiced in England, but it merged with several Puritan traditions in New England during the 17th century. By the time of the American Revolution, Thanksgiving was a well-established custom. The Second Continental Congress turned a regional tradition into a national one when offered its first Thanksgiving Proclamation on November 1, 1777, recommending that the individual states of the new United States set apart December 18th as a day of Thanksgiving and praise. During the Revolution, Congress continued the practice, issuing its last proclamation in 1784.
The tradition stopped until George Washington became President under the new U.S. Constitution in 1789. Washington was what one biographer, James Thomas Flexner, called “the indispensable man.” Always worried about the fragility of the new country, Washington consciously sought to establish and demonstrate personal norms and behavior that he thought best served the nation’s long-term health. With that in mind, he issued the first Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation:
THANKSGIVING DAY 1789
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – A PROCLAMATION 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 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, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war –for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed – for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled 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 hath 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 shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, 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.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. GO. WASHINGTON.
On the appointed day, he braved storms and rain to set an example and attend services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, only to find the turnout was rather modest. Still, all was not lost for those confined to New York City’s jail. In honor of Thanksgiving, Washington demonstrated the importance of charity and good-will by purchasing food and beer for those imprisoned for indebtedness. It didn’t quite amount to football and feasting, but it was a good start.