The Thanksgiving holiday in America is one that is very much forged from peace—but also from war. On November 1, 1777, the Continental Congress issued a first-ever “national” Thanksgiving Day proclamation, on the heels of the victory at Saratoga. The Congress made special mention of their military commanders and troops, linking their efforts to the ultimate, desired end: victory in the whole war, for the establishment of a stable government that allowed for the cultivation of the “principles of true liberty.”
FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts…and… that it may please GOD … to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand…
After the Colonists did indeed achieve victory in the War of Independence against the British, having finally cemented that victory in the ratification of a new Constitution, the first new president—and former general—George Washington proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789, to mark the peaceful adoption of the new Constitution. Washington urged the young nation to thank God for:
…the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge…
It wasn’t until the Civil War, when magazine Sarah Josefala Hale wrote to President Abraham Lincoln urging him to make a fixed, “national festival” of Thanksgiving for the whole Union, that the celebration of Thanksgiving become more than a local tradition (and one mainly celebrated in the New England states, and on different days by state). Exactly 74 years after President Washington had proclaimed his Day of Thanksgiving, President Lincoln proclaimed in 1863 that from henceforth the last Thursday of November would be set aside as a day of “thanksgiving and praise.”
…In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom…. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation…
Successive American presidents chose to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps and annually proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day. Finally, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s tenure as president, in October 1941, Congress chose to make the fourth Thursday in November the permanent and legal holiday of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving thus originated in a desire to give thanks for victories in war and to petition for soldiers on the battlefield and their commanders. But it is equally rooted in the desire to remind all Americans, especially those who did not go to war, to remember the sacrifice of those who have defended their nation, especially by caring for the veteran, and the spouses, orphans, and widows they’ve left behind.
Even more than that, however, is this consistent thread found throughout more than two centuries of proclamations: That the greatest gift is peace, that it must continually be labored for, but that it is possible to achieve, through the union of both liberty and equality-loving citizens, and a well-ordered, just government.