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 Thanksgiving History Documents

Thanksgiving History Documents
1678 to 2011

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A collection of documents, newspaper articles, political cartoons, and photographs chronicling observance of the American holiday, Thanksgiving Day.

On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation marking Thursday, November 26, 1789, as an official holiday of "sincere and humble thanks."  The nation then celebrated its first Thanksgiving under its new Constitution. 

Magazine editor Sarah Hale wrote to President Abraham Lincoln encouraging him to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day. This was part of Hale's seventeen-year campaign to establish Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday. Hale included in her letter to Lincoln an editorial she wrote for her Lady's Book magazine and explained that a "national feeling of Thanksgiving" would benefit the country in the midst of the Civil War.

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln made the traditional Thanksgiving celebration a nationwide holiday to be commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.  In the midst of a bloody Civil War, President Lincoln issued a Presidential Proclamation in which he enumerated the blessings of the American people and called upon his countrymen to "set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise."

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy, which was still recovering from the Depression. 

At the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. President Abraham Lincoln had declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November in 1863 and tradition dictated that it be celebrated on the last Thursday of that month. But this tradition was difficult to continue during the challenging times of the Great Depression as statistics showed that most people waited until after Thanksgiving to begin their holiday shopping.

Roosevelt's first Thanksgiving in office fell on November 30, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. This meant that there were only about 20 shopping days until Christmas; business leaders feared they would lose the much needed revenue an extra week of shopping would afford them. They asked President Roosevelt to move the holiday up from the 30th to the 23rd; however he choose to keep the Thanksgiving Holiday on the last Thursday of the month as it had been for nearly three quarters of a century.

In 1939, with the country still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November. This time the President did move Thanksgiving up a week to the 23rd. Changing the date seemed harmless enough, but it proved to be quite controversial. This move, which set off a national debate, was reversed in 1941 when Congress passed and President Roosevelt approved a joint house resolution establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. 

Highlights in this document packet includes:

Proclamations by the Continental Congress, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah J. Hale writings attempting to establish Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday.

Newspaper articles and political cartoons documenting the zeitgeist toward Thanksgiving Day throughout the years.

Letters written to President Franklin Roosevelt concerning the controversy surrounding changing the date of Thanksgiving.

Photographs of Presidents from Truman to Obama engaged in traditional White House and Presidential Thanksgiving.

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ThanksgivingDocuments.pdf (22MB)

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