DAVID ROSMAN: Thanksgiving holiday origins seldom remembered

Thursday, November 28, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Happy Thanksgiving.

A bit of a history lesson for those waiting for the next football game to begin.

Although is it generally agreed that the first Thanksgiving celebration was in 1621 in the Plymouth Colony, it was not until the 1863 when President Lincoln declared the last day of November a day of Thanksgiving, and in 1941 it was settled that Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by Congress. Prior to that, a day of thanks was observed as a day of prayer during times of war.

The first official declaration of a day of thanksgiving was in 1777 by the Continental Congress, but not everyone was excited with the idea. Even at this early date of American history, the idea of state versus national rights was questioned. The University of Virginia tells us that patriot Thomas Tudor Tucker believed “the House (of Burgess) had no business to interfere in a matter which did not concern them. Why should the President (of the Continental Congress) direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do? If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States.”  Not a presidential decree but by the people’s representatives.

There were eight such declarations during the Revolution, with only the proclamation of 1780 declaring that the day of thanksgiving would go beyond a day of prayer for winning the war against the British. The proclamation of 1780 was a bit different from those made through the end of the war simply because of its final line. After asking for God’s blessing in victory on land and sea, the proclamation concluded with:

“… To cherish all schools and seminaries of education, build up his churches in their most holy faith and to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth.”

One must remember that this document was written in a style that was proper for any formal proclamation of the day and the idea of God’s blessing for the leaders and fighter of the American Revolution was not questioned — at least openly. The last such annual declaration was in 1815, after the War of 1812.

American Ladies Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale was behind the 1863 declaration of a day of Thanksgiving by President Lincoln. In fact, a day of Thanksgiving was first declared by Jefferson Davis in 1861, two years before Hale’s campaign for a Thanksgiving holiday would be honored by Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward.

The 1863 declaration of a national Thanksgiving Day was of Seward’s hand and asked for God’s help in healing the wounds caused by the Civil War. Seward wrote for Lincoln’s signature, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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.”

The last congressional declaration for a national holiday was in 1941 under the signature of President Franklyn D. Roosevelt, formally setting the last Thursday of  November as the day of celebration.  

We seem to forget the history of this day of thanks and its birth during times of harvest and of war. We seem to have put Thanksgiving aside for Black Friday and the multitude of winter holidays that fall in December. We will seek a space on the couch to watch football and plan to escape at midnight to get holiday shopping done. We tend to forget that this is a time to remember family and the bountiful harvests, a time to remember our troops under threat of war and to give thanks for the blessings of our being Americans.

I give thanks for my friends and family, for the honor to place words in this newspaper and for your support. I honor the troops who are charged with preserving those freedoms we fought so hard to achieve when the first American declaration of a day of thanks was made 236 years ago.

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. May you enjoy the company of family and friends, remember the origins of this national holiday and may these words find you well and in great spirits today and for the coming year.

David Rosman writes a weekly column for the Missourian. He is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Some segments of this column were first published in his book, "A Christian Nation?: An examination of Christian nation theories and proofs."

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Ellis Smith November 28, 2013 | 7:10 a.m.

It's fitting that Americans should set aside at least one day each year as a day of thanksgiving: We have a lot to be thankful for. Granted, there are times when it may not seem that way, but it's true.

The day need not be "coupled" with organized religion, or even with religious belief - execpt as individuals, families and extended families decide they want it to be. (The First Amendment requires that Congress not legislate matters of religion, not that there be no religion.)

It might also be fitting that on a day of thanksgiving we take at least a few minutes to remember there are persons, organizations and governments elsewhere in the world who for various reasons wish Americans ill, while there are those in America who, in the name of some utopian concept, would slowly and insidiously rob us of our individual freedoms.

Yes, the day should definitely be about more than merely ""stuffing our faces" and watching TV.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 28, 2013 | 8:56 p.m.

Given this nice history of Thanksgiving from Dave, I do have to conclude that many of those who came before us should have been sued for using so many religious words while in service of the public.

Today, I had the privilege of saying prayer at our extended-family Thanksgiving dinner. Either everyone else's vocals were paralyzed from extreme hunger or I was chosen because everyone knew I would be short and to the point....unlike my manner in this posting place (the difference, of course, being "I'm pretty hungry, too" versus "having time on my typing hands while not hungry").

Anyway, I mentioned that our uniformly-conservative family had a lot to be thankful for, but mainly I gave collective thanks for our freedom in this country. I also asked for the strength and guidance to keep it.

There was a rather hearty Amen, which pleased me although I wasn't fishing for such a thing. The reaction was certainly heartier than ensues from my normal "Rub-a-dub-dub thanks for the grub Amen Pass the potatoes please."

(Report Comment)

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