What Did Americans Do at the First Thanksgiving? Argue About It.November 25, 2021
In late 1863, President Abraham Lincoln unwittingly launched what would soon become a cherished American tradition.
A well-wisher had sent a turkey to the White House for the first family’s holiday meal. When Lincoln’s son, Tad, begged his father to spare the bird’s life, the president — ever an indulgent parent — pulled out a piece of paper and wrote out a presidential pardon. Thus was a venerable presidential practice born.
But the mood was not light that fall. The Civil War, now in its third year, had torn at the nation’s fabric, creating bitter divisions not just between North and South, but also within the Union itself. In October, in an effort to inspire greater unity, Lincoln had declared the first-ever national Thanksgiving celebration, fixing the last Thursday of November for a day of reflection and prayer.
As non-controversial as Thanksgiving is today, you might imagine the proclamation met with universal acceptance. It did not.
Reflecting the sharp polarization in national politics, many Democrats and peace proponents refused to acknowledge the president’s proclamation of the new holiday, and some even denounced it as an attempt to impose a particular brand of New England fanaticism on the whole country. Lincoln’s proclamation unleashed the social resentments of many voters who resisted the growing influence of evangelical churches and the concurrent growth of social reform movements — from abolitionism and temperance to Sabbatarianism and women’s rights.
To borrow from today’s political lexicon, Lincoln’s opponents nursed an intense dislike of that era’s “wokeness.” Back then, they called it “ism” — referring to the set of religious social reform movements of the day that sought to refashion the nation’s social and political systems in line with evangelical Protestant sensibilities. These critics recoiled at the pace of social change that these movements represented and resented the suggestion that they think or pray a certain way. Conversely, many Republicans greeted the president’s proclamation as a sign that the government in Washington embraced their worldview. The controversy over the first annual national Thanksgiving is a useful reminder that Americans have long argued over religion and culture, and that topics seemingly disconnected from politics can take on unexpected meaning in moments of rancor and disunity.
We tend to misremember Thanksgiving as a holiday born in Plymouth Colony and celebrated faithfully every November hence. In fact, early colonists frequently declared fast and thanksgiving days, partly in keeping with Puritan practice and partly in appreciation of bountiful harvests or victories in war with local Native American tribes. Presidents George Washington, John Adams and James Madison all proclaimed days of thanksgiving — sometimes, but not always, in November (Adams and Madison issued such proclamations in March) — and by the late 1840s, some form of harvest thanksgiving celebration was observed in 21 states, though on different days in November. The holiday was generally meant to inspire prayerful reflection and gratitude for “God’s beneficence toward us” (Washington’s words), reflecting its origins in Puritan New England as a harvest season observance.
But as late as 1863, there was no fixed national holiday.
Throughout the Civil War, both Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued multiple calls for national days of thanksgiving and prayerful reflection. Lincoln’s first such proclamation, in August 1861, came on the heels of the Union’s defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run and was intended to calm the people’s nerves and steel their resolve. It was hardly a moment that inspired celebration. The president called on citizens to “bow in humble submission to [God’s] chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It was, for Lincoln, an uncharacteristic display of public religiosity. Referring to the battlefield defeat, he recognized “the hand of God in this terrible visitation” and pointed to “our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals” as a sure cause of the Union’s loss.
Even before the war, Lincoln told an audience in Wisconsin that holiday celebrations had the potential to “bring us together, and thereby make us better acquainted, and better friends than we otherwise would be.” He was particularly influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, who had for many years spearheaded a campaign to create a national Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday in November. Taking his cue from Hale, who had approached him with a specific proposal, on Oct. 3, 1863, the president issued a proclamation setting aside Thursday, Nov. 26, as a day when Americans, “as with one heart and one voice,” would thank God for “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” and pray that God “heal the wounds of the nation and … restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
On the face of it, a unifying and uncontroversial gesture for the time. But in 1863, hardly anything in American life was beyond dispute.
By 1863, the state of Union politics was deeply fractious. On the Republican side, conservative, radical and moderate Republicans largely agreed on the imperative of crushing the Confederacy, but not on the urgency — or even the wisdom — of either emancipation or arming Black soldiers and sailors. The Democrats, the opposition party, were split down the middle between “War Democrats” who supported the Lincoln administration’s military policy, though not necessarily the Emancipation Proclamation, and “Peace Democrats” (whom Republicans disparaged as “Copperheads”) who supported an immediate armistice which would effectively allow the Confederacy to leave the Union on its own terms, with slavery intact.
Particularly in the border states and throughout the Midwest, Republicans and Peace Democrats eyed each other with mounting suspicion and loathing. Republicans viewed Peace Democrats like Ohio Rep. Clement Vallandigham as traitors to the country, while Democrats bitterly opposed the Lincoln administration’s high-handed violation of civil liberties. (Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus throughout vast parts of the country, jailed newspaper editors and pro-secession state and local officials and even banished Vallandigham, who had agitated against military conscription, to the Confederacy.)
But there was more to it. For years, many Southerners and pro-slavery Northerners had pilloried the Republican Party as an organization of religious fanatics bound by a commitment to extreme and even (for the time) zany evangelical reform movements — in the words of Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, “the black republican army is an allied army, composed of Know Nothings, Abolitionists, Free Soilers, Maine Liquor Law men, woman’s rights men, Anti-renters, Anti-Masons, and all the isms that have been sloughed off from all the honest parties in the country.” While some of these movements strike the modern reader as incongruous, in the antebellum era, some of the strongest advocates of abolition and women’s rights also wanted to restrict immigration and impose sobriety on a nation of heavy drinkers. Race — the debate over slavery and abolition — was always at the center of the political debate. But it intersected with a broader array of cultural concerns.
In the same way that some Americans today lump their cultural resentments under the banner of “wokeness,” many conservatives in Lincoln’s day decried the Republican Party’s affinity for “isms” — “an abolition conglomerate of all the isms at war with the rights of the States,” “all the isms … combined in the superlative ism, which I denounce as demonism, ” as Gov. Henry Wise of Virginia stated the case. George Fitzhugh, a leading Southern polemicist before the war, echoed Douglas when he denounced the “Bloomers and Women’s Rights men,” the “I vote myself a farm men,” the “Millerites, and Spiritual Rappers, and Shakers, and Widow Wakemanites, and Agrarians, and Grahamites, and a thousand other superstitious and infidel isms.”
While most Americans in Lincoln’s time identified as evangelical Christians, and while the ranks of War Democrats included many evangelicals, the churches were closely associated with many of the reform movements — including abolitionism — that Democrats so sharply opposed. Particularly in the Midwest, many Democrats resented the increasingly partisan tone that “political priests” assumed in their Sunday sermons and, as one newspaper editor wrote, the “fanatics [who] have assumed the cloak of religion to carry out schemes entirely at variance with the Almighty’s commandments.”
It became increasingly popular for administration critics to lump the offending religious reform movements under the moniker of “Puritanism,” given the central role that New England played in organized abolitionism. It made little difference that Puritanism bore nothing in common with evangelical Christianity, either intellectually or theologically. By 1863, the term had become a political descriptor, devoid of its original meaning. The Republican Party, as one Confederate political cartoonist portrayed it, was built on the foundation of “PURITANISM,” supported by pillars that included “WITCH BURNING,” “SOCIALISM,” “FREE LOVE,” “SPIRIT RAPPING,” “RATIONALISM” and “NEGRO WORSHIP.”
Puritanism, said influential Peace Democrats like Clement Vallandigham and Samuel Cox, was the origin of all the “isms” that had propelled America to war. Shortly before his Thanksgiving proclamation, Lincoln received a letter from Indiana’s beleaguered Republican governor, who reported that “every democratic newspaper … is teeming with abuse of New England and it is the theme of every speech. … They allege New England has brought upon us, the War, by a fanatical crusade against Slavery.”
Little wonder, then, that many Democrats resented the spirit of Lincoln’s proclamation, to say nothing of their ministers’ Thanksgiving sermons the following Sunday morning. Many Democratic newspapers, like the York Gazette in Pennsylvania, scarcely mentioned the holiday, noting simply that shops would be closed, and instead devoted column space to fulminations against political preachers who stoked anti-Southern passions and promoted endless war against the South. Further west, the Indianapolis Star railed against the administration’s “Puritan abolition game” to “protract the war till the period of another Presidential election is passed, to be decided not by the people, but by the army.”
Little wonder that the label “Puritan” so easily came to mind. Thanksgiving was, after all, steeped in Pilgrim lore. In response to such criticism of the president’s call, Harper’s Weekly ran a satirical “Copperhead Editorial” that offered Lincoln’s “union Thanksgiving” as “final damning proof of the utter subserviency of the present imbecile Administration to the rankest Puritan fanaticism.” The joke was funny because people had grown quite used to hearing Democrats reduce the term “Puritan” to a catch-all phrase encompassing a broad swath of Christian reform causes — foremost among them, abolition.
To be sure, it didn’t help that New England abolitionists homed in on Thanksgiving’s Puritan roots and rejoiced, in the words of an abolitionist newspaper, in knowledge that it had now “gone forth with her children to all the continent.”
Lincoln would again declare the last Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving in 1864. And again, the Democratic opposition press ignored or disparaged the “Puritan” nature of the proclamation. Only in subsequent years would the holiday assume its more saccharine and secular character.
Much else has changed in the past 150 years, including the timing of the holiday (it now falls on the fourth Thursday of each November, rather than the last) and its meaning. Few people stop to remember its Civil War origins, or the controversy that surrounded it. Evangelical churches — so core to radical reform in the 19th century — are now more closely aligned with opponents of social change.
But some things stay the same.
As Americans sit down to their holiday meal this Thursday, we remain steeped in a debate over “isms“ — “wokeness” — “political correctness.” Just as it was with “Puritanism” in 1863, in today’s political landscape, the actual meaning of terms like “critical race theory” is less important than what such terms symbolize to many people who are unnerved by the pace of social change in American society, and, conversely, to those who welcome it.
Americans might celebrate Thanksgiving very differently than they did in 1863, but one tradition remains the same: We still argue about politics on the holiday.