Holiday History 101: Give thanks to George Washington for Thanksgiving

Americans don’t know it and children aren’t taught it, but George Washington is responsible for our Thanksgiving holiday.

It was our first president who led the charge to make this day of thanks a truly national event – not the Pilgrims and not Abraham Lincoln. (Technically, the little-known John Hanson (1715-1783) was the first president of the United States – under The Articles of Confederation. Washington was the first president under the Constitution, which replaced The Articles of Confederation.)

On October 3, 1789, George Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving” to be held on “Thursday the 26th day of November,” 1789, marking the first national celebration of a holiday that has become commonplace in today’s households.

While subsequent presidents failed to maintain this tradition, it was Washington’s original Proclamation that guided Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation.

In fact, Lincoln issued his proclamation on the same day, October 3, and marked the same Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 26, as Washington, setting Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November after our first president’s example.

The proclamation was printed in newspapers, including the October 9, 1789, issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.

Washington first mentioned the possibility of a national Thanksgiving Day in a confidential letter to James Madison in August 1789 (just months after taking office), asking for his advice on approaching the Senate for their opinion on “a day of thanksgiving.”

By the end of September 1789, a resolution had been introduced to the House of Representatives requesting that “a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving.”

The committee put the resolution before the president and George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving Proclamation within days.
Washington knew the value of a thanksgiving day long before becoming our first president. During the Revolutionary War, he would order special thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles, as well as publicly endorse efforts by the Continental Congress to proclaim days of thanks, usually in recognition of military victories and alliances.
The concept of thanksgiving was not new to the citizens of the new United States. Colonists even before the Pilgrims often established Thank Days to mark certain occasions.

These one-time events could occur at any time of the year and were usually more solemn than the Thanksgiving we observe today, emphasizing prayer and spiritual reflection.

Thanksgiving was not made a legal holiday until 1941 when Congress named the fourth Thursday in November as our national day of thanks in answer to public outcry over President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to prolong the Christmas shopping season by moving Thanksgiving from the traditional last Thursday to the third Thursday of November.

Most of the information in this story is courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens in Mount Vernon, Va.