U.S. #3546 – Though Thanksgiving celebrations were held since the 1620s, they didn’t become an annual holiday until 1863.

Thanksgiving Day Proclamations

On October 3, 1789 and 1863, two sitting presidents called on Americans to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving in November.

Though colonists had held harvest celebrations of thanks since the 1620s, it wasn’t an official holiday celebrated everywhere. That changed in 1789. On September 25, Elias Boudinot presented a resolution to the House of Representatives asking that President Washington “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer… the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

U.S. #97 – Read the text of Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation here.

Congress approved the resolution and appointed a committee to approach Washington. Washington agreed and issued his proclamation on October 3. In it, he asked all Americans to observe November 26 as a day to give thanks to God for their victory in the Revolution as well as their establishment of a Constitution and government. He then gave it to the governors of each state and asked them to publish it for all to see.

In the years that followed, Presidents John Adams and James Madison issued similar proclamations, but none were permanent. In 1817, New York officially established an annual Thanksgiving holiday. Other northern states followed suit, though they weren’t all on the same day.

U.S. #77 – Read the text of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation here.

Sarah Josepha Hale (famous for the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) began a rigorous campaign in 1827 to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She published articles and wrote letters to countless politicians, to no avail. Finally, in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln received one of her letters and was inspired. On October 3, he issued his own proclamation, establishing the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving. In particular to pray for those who lost loved ones in the war and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated on last Thursday of November until 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt moved it up a week to increase retail sales during the Great Depression. Americans were outraged and dubbed it “Franksgiving.” Two years later he reversed his policy and signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November, as it has remained ever since.

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  1. I love this history about our nation as it makes the stamps more meaningful. Makes me want to revive an old hobby that has gone by the wayside.

  2. I look forward to viewing the stamp for This Day in History! The story surrounding the issue of the stamps is informative and entertaining. Will tell the story of how the Thanksgiving holiday came to be and the date chosen to celebrate at my family Thanksgiving table this year.

  3. Very Good overview and background. Sets up for some additional research. Thanks for the “starter points”… Great series of articles!!!

  4. Great article. Learned some new things. My rating showed 3 stars but It should read 5. Happy thanksgiving to all for all the correct reasons.

  5. “Franksgiving”! Ha! That’s funny and a piece of trivia I would never had known had I not received this newsletter. Thank you, Mystic.

  6. It’s been at least a couple of decades since I have studied U.S. political history regularly, Nonetheless, as I recall the history of Thanksgiving Day, your version is woefully incomplete and misleading. Again, I’m recalling from my reading of it more than a quarter century ago.

    As I recollect, most, if not all, Presidents declared at least one day of Thanksgiving each year. A couple of Presidents (Abraham Lincoln being one) declared 10 days of Thanksgiving. As I remember, Thanksgiving has been celebrated on every day of the week except for Wednesday.

    As for our current practice (i.e., law) that Thanksgiving Day be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in the month of November, it is due to something FDR did and how the legislative branch reacted. FDR, being well read in U.S. history, knew that declaring a day for national thanksgiving was a tradition practiced by (as I recall) all presidents and the day (or days) set aside for a national Thanksgiving was selected by the president. So, FDR declared a national day of Thanksgiving different from the fourth Thursday of November. There was nothing illegal about his choice. There was nothing improper about his choice–it was within our historical political tradition. The problem was that, for the preceding about sixty years, presidents had been declaring only one day a year as Thanksgiving Day and that day was (about?) the fourth Thursday of November. People had become accustomed (and some were ignorant of the history) to celebrating only one Thanksgiving Day a year and celebrating it in late November. So, the legislative branch ended the right of a president to declare a national day of thanksgiving. They did this by passing a law asserting that there would by only one Thanksgiving Day a year and it would be the fourth Thursday of November.

    P.S. I am thoroughly enjoying your historical notes, which is why I wrote this note (a thank you note, if you will). Please keep it up.

    P.S. The most efficient way to research the history of Thanksgiving Day (at least before the existence of the internet) was through a multi-volume collection of books with the title (as I recollect) of Messages and Papers of the Presidents of the United States. That collection of primary documents began with George Washington and ended (as I recall) in the early 1900’s.

  7. I am once again amazed by President Abraham Lincoln. As if there wasn’t enough that he had accomplished , legislated, or was ultimately responsible for during the turbulent times that all of these occurred, I now find out that he instituted Thanksgiving, an event that commemorates an event that happened more than 200 years previous to his administration. Pardon my ignorance for not knowing this previously but this is one of the reasons why I read this post ,to fill in the blanks. For those of you that have not read his proclamation of October 3, 1863, click on US#77 located in this post. I am blown away by his eloquence, this, at the height of the Civil War in the form and manner that he has become known for.

  8. Why not include who the stamp designer was for the unusual embroidered cornucopia basket and how that came to be chosen?

  9. As I remember from my Junior High School History Course, the arrival of the Pilgrims took place on Dec 21, 1621. Being that date so close to Christmas, President Lincoln chose the last Thursday in Nov., as the holiday.

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