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The Political Roots of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in America has a rich history.

By:  |  November 20, 2021  |    583 Words
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The Pilgrims and Native Americans did not invent Thanksgiving, but they embraced the concept and made it their own. Harvest festivals have been celebrated for thousands of years by many peoples, tribes, and nations in appreciation of the bounty produced by their hard work and stewardship of the land. America has turned the end-of-harvest feast into the holiday of Thanksgiving, marking the story of the colonials of Massachusetts and the Wampanoag people in 1621, who enjoyed peace together for a time.

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Illustration of George Washington crossing the Delaware, 1776 (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Early New World settlers were happy simply to survive the weather, wildlife, insects, and poison ivy, so they knew the friendship of the Wampanoags, and sharing the food, was a blessing.

But over the years, that all changed. European settlers overpowered the natives, driving them off their land and spreading new diseases. It didn’t take long for that early friendship to fall apart.

Politicians Impose Gratefulness

Harvest festivals continued up and down the Eastern Seaboard, while colonists dealt with New World matters, especially the American Revolution. That ended with a newly created U.S. Constitution in 1789, when President George Washington gave a proclamation calling November 26 of that year a “Day of Publick Thanksgiving.”

Washington’s idea of Thanksgiving didn’t have much to do with the pilgrims. Rather, he celebrated the start of the United States as a nation. He told the people to show gratitude to God for the U.S. victory in the Revolutionary War, as well as “the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed.” He also gave thanks for the new Constitution, “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed,” access to knowledge and learning, and “all the great and various favors which he [God] hath been pleased to confer upon us.”

He also asked God to help the U.S. stay true to its founding ideals and to make “our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws.”

According to his estate, Mount Vernon, Washington “would order special thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles” during the Revolutionary War. He also supported efforts by the Continental Congress to proclaim days of thanks for military victories.

The next presidents didn’t keep the Thanksgiving tradition. It wasn’t until much later that the holiday was revived.

President Abraham Lincoln brought back a day of thanks during the height of the Civil War. Lincoln expressed his own gratitude to God for the victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, calling upon his countrymen to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

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President Abraham Lincoln with Civil War officers

A Pilgrim Attitude

Eventually, the Thanksgiving tradition took root among the American people.

Traditionally, the last Thursday in November was set aside as a day of Thanksgiving. People decided to just be grateful for something and count their blessings. But then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shook it up a bit. In 1938, FDR changed the date to the third Thursday. But no one listened; Americans failed to accept the date change, and Thanksgiving was celebrated on the fourth Thursday. In 1941, that date had to be set in stone by the 77th Congress.

In 1621, folks had the right attitude. They were simply happy to be alive.

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