A Brief History of the Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation—And Where Biden Fits In

On October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln made his first Thanksgiving proclamation. This was during the Civil War. It might have been particularly hard for citizens to hear him note that “[t] he year that is drawing to its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” but nevertheless Lincoln described bounties and gracious gifts, and advances in industry. He invited citizens “in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands,” to join him in thanksgiving the last Thursday of November. While not everyone was able to agree and definitely not all participated, an annual tradition started.
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Joe Biden’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation will be issued this November as President of The United States. It will mark the 159th consecutive time such proclamation. Over the years the tone of proclamations has varied widely, with some presidents using the opportunity to highlight—under the guise of gratitude—their own accomplishments during the year. Some came straight from the heart and were written to lift spirits in difficult times. Even if they came from the heart, overcooked hams and underdone turkeys were all reflections of the office and country at large.

Continue reading: Turkey is a Thanksgiving favorite

The timing of President Woodrow Wilson’s Thanksgiving proclamation of 1917 found the United States mired in World War I, for example, and provided a unifying message when for many it seemed impossible to find anything for which to be grateful. Wilson wrote that stopping to give thanks was a “custom we can follow now even in the midst of the tragedy of a world shaken by war and immeasurable disaster, in the midst of sorrow and great peril, because even amidst the darkness that has gathered about us we can see the great blessings God has bestowed upon us, blessings that are better than mere peace of mind and prosperity of enterprise.”

Wilson’s proclamation the following year, in November 1918, was issued just five days after the signing of the armistice, and reflected the hope of that moment—even though the world was still suffering from the deadly flu pandemic of that year. “It has long been our custom to turn in the autumn of the year in praise and thanksgiving,” he said. “This year we have special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice.”

Once Thanksgiving was finally established by Congress in 1943 as an official holiday, the president no longer needed to “proclaim” which Thursday the holiday would grace. Even though they continued to be popular, the reprinting and publication of these proclamations was less important. It’s like your aunt’s mushy Brussels sprouts: you know they will be served up every year, but no one is really in a hurry to dig in. The annual pardoning the turkey now receives more attention. (This tradition, as it happens, goes back to Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad, who wanted a turkey that had been gifted to the Lincoln household spared from being eaten at Christmas—not Thanksgiving.)

Roosevelt Signing Thanksgiving Proclamation
Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesIn 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation of Thanksgiving in his office.

It will be proclamated again this week. When it arrives, what is it going to say about that particular moment?

As we’ve known for years now, the story of the so-called “first Thanksgiving,” held 400 years ago in 1621, is more legend than history—so it’s only appropriate that, for more than the first 70 years of presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, not one mentioned Pilgrims. Roosevelt was the first to include them, in 1939, and the credit they’ve received for “creating” the holiday was the result of the romanticizing of a historical event. With each year that passes, we gain a deeper, more comprehensive understanding. Many historical and diverse stories of gratitude that are rich in meaning, accuracy, and often inspiring can still be shared.

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President Biden’s first Thanksgiving proclamation comes on the heels of expanded historical and cultural awareness of our founding myths and stories, and in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and a loud, divisive time. What can Biden do if Roosevelt drove the Pilgrims?

He has an opportunity to fulfill his old presidential duty and let the world know that Thanksgiving is upon America. His messaging this year, in the midst of our own senses of loss and uncertainty, cannot be an afterthought, some sort of reheating of proclamations past—a turkey tetrazzini of leftover sentiments. Biden must convey a message about unity. Yes. For this holiday season, which is unpredictable and full of surprises, he should be openly honest but positive. Absolutely. However, he must also clearly state, in his capacity as President, how our nation’s myth of Thanksgiving is both inaccurate and deeply offensive to Indigenous peoples.

Continue reading: ‘I Was Teaching a Lot of Misconceptions.’ The Way American Kids Are Learning About the ‘First Thanksgiving’ Is Changing

He would be able to satisfy his hunger for clarity, inspiration, inclusion, and transparency by doing this. The one thing that harvest festivals and gatherings and thanksgivings (whether spelled with a big “T” or a small one) throughout time have in common is gratitude. Recent scientific research on the power of gratitude has shown that even in difficult times, it can be more powerful to give thanks. Giving thanks when it’s most difficult can bring the greatest benefits. Biden must bring the taste.

As we all come together to express gratitude, let’s set an example this November by allowing the White House to lead. Let’s do it accurately, inclusively, and sincerely.

Finding common ground, whatever it may be, in these difficult times is not only saving a holiday but also saving ourselves.

Denise KiernanIs the author We Gather together: A Nation Divided. President in Turmoil. Historic Campaign to Embrace Grace and Gratitude. Available at Dutton Books


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