George Washington’s First Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation
Washington issues the first Thanksgiving proclamation under the new Federal Constitution, one of only two signed copies—and the only one in private hands.
“for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness... for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge”
GEORGE WASHINGTON. Manuscript Document Signed as President. Proclaiming “Thursday the 26th day of November” as “a day of thanksgiving and prayer.” New York, N.Y., October 3, 1789. 1 p., 9-5⁄8 x 14-5⁄8 in. The text of this, and the other known copy (acquired by the Library of Congress in 1921) was penned by William Jackson, a personal secretary to the president and previously the secretary to the Constitutional Convention. #23201 Price on request
On September 25, 1789, as the momentous first Federal Congress drew to its close in New York, the new national capital, Representative Elias Boudinot introduced a resolution calling on President Washington to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer . . . acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
A leading opponent of the resolution, Thomas Tudor Tucker, asked, “Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” The skeptical Congressman noted that the people “may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.” He also argued that it was a religious matter and thus proscribed to the new government. South Carolina Representative Aedanus Burke balked at the idea of a federally-imposed day of thanks, stating he “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.” Regardless, Boudinot and his colleagues in the House passed the resolution — one of their last pieces of business before completing the proposed Bill of Rights. The Senate concurred three days later, and a delegation was sent to meet the President. George Washington, who had in fact anticipated the question in a letter to James Madison a month earlier, readily agreed.
On October 3, George Washington signed the document offered here, America’s first Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. Washington employed the exact language of the resolution to begin his proclamation, though he went further, giving thanks for “tranquility, union, and plenty” and asking the Almighty to guide the new nation’s leaders and government. He used the same approach a year later when he wrote what is now one of his most celebrated letters: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, [and] requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Washington willingly echoed Moses Seixas’ stance on tolerance and added to it, just as he did in his Thanksgiving Proclamation when asking the Almighty “To render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and Constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”
Washington was celebrating two things in his Proclamation: First, that the United States had emerged victorious from a long war with the world’s greatest military power and second, the nation was just implementing a new government designed to balance necessary powers with strong protections of individual rights. “Peaceably” establishing a new government was worth singling out; it reflected understanding that the danger of disunion had been avoided during the heated debate over the Constitution’s ratification. Compromise had been reached by promising the addition of a Bill of Rights. In fact, the very same day Boudinot proposed this thanksgiving proclamation, Congress passed the first twelve amendments to the Constitution to be sent to the states for ratification.
Establishing the National Holiday
The American public enthusiastically accepted Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. Newspapers printed it, citizens celebrated across the country, and churches used the occasion to solicit donations for the poor. George Washington personally responded, contributing $25. In 1795, noting “the unexampled prosperity of all classes of our citizens,” Washington issued his only other Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, calling on Americans to “acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God and to implore him to continue and confirm the blessings we experience.”
Six years later, Washington issued his second and final thanksgiving proclamation on his own initiative. John Adams and James Madison would also issue Thanksgiving Proclamations, but days of Thanksgiving typically remained state holidays. Abraham Lincoln was the next president to issue national Thanksgiving Proclamations. He began by closing government departments for a day in 1861, and in March 1863, he called for a day of “national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” He issued another, assigning August 6, 1863, as a day of “National Thanksgiving.” Soon after, Lincoln was moved by a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale, who had lobbied the four prior presidents unsuccessfully to make Thanksgiving a third national holiday in addition to Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday. On October 3, 1863, exactly 74 years after George Washington’s Proclamation, Lincoln established the fourth Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving, setting the precedent that remains to this day.
Washington and Religion
While the thanksgiving proclamation was steeped in the language of the “Almighty,” Washington was very private regarding his own religious practices and had no inclination to impose his, or any, faith on others. His perspective suggests a more civic religion, one springing from the influence of his fellow Virginians’ Deism coupled with the older Puritan belief that America was a “city upon a hill,” the last best hope for liberty. Ultimately, Washington’s reticence suggests belief in a higher power along with the conviction that humans were in charge of their own fates.
Elias Boudinot (1740-1821) read law at Princeton, became a successful attorney, and eventually served as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. During the Revolution, he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1778-79) and as its president (1782-83). At war’s end, he was elected to the House of Representatives. He served on the Committee of Eleven that created discrete Constitutional amendments from James Madison’s suggested modifications and chaired the House Committee of the Whole that considered the revised amendments in August. In 1795, President Washington appointed Boudinot director of the United States Mint.
The heirs of Grace Phillips Johnson. Sold at Christie’s October 21, 1977, Lot 2. To John Fleming. To Karpeles Manuscript Library, ca 1978. Acquired by Seth Kaller, Inc, 2013. Offered at Christie’s November 14, 2013, estimate $8-12,000,000, unsold. To present owner, privately, 2015.
By the President of the United States of America
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, 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; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.