History, History Column

Why We Give Thanks

by ©2022 Sarah Becker

Colonial Virginia celebrated its first day of thanksgiving on December 4, 1619. “We Ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly,” the Berkeley Company declared, “and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

There, on the north shore of the James River, settlers, including Episcopal clergyman George Thorpe “knelt and held a thanksgiving service for their safe arrival.” The Pilgrims’ Plymouth, Massachusetts, day of thanksgiving was held one year and seventeen days after Berkeley’s.

Berkeley Plantation may well be the “most historic plantation on the James River.” A plantation located halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg Berkeley includes not only a First Thanksgiving Shrine; it is also the 18th century home of Benjamin Harrison V, signer of the Declaration of Independence and his son William Henry Harrison, ninth President of the United States. Benjamin Harrison III purchased the tobacco plantation in 1691 and created the River’s first commercial shipyard.

General George Washington, his Revolutionary Army welcomed thanksgiving. The General’s December 17, 1777, order: “[B]eing the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us—The General directs that the army remain in its present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and brigades….”

Winning a war, forming a Union, and rewriting the Articles of Confederation are not easy tasks. “The disinclination of the individual States to yield competent powers to Congress for the Federal Government—their unreasonable jealousy of that body & of one another—& the disposition which seems to pervade each, of being all-wise & all-powerful within itself, will, if there is not a change in the system, be our downfall as a Nation,” Washington wrote Virginia Governor Benjamin Harrison V in 1784.

The first presidential Proclamation of National Thanksgiving was published on October 3, 1789: in President George Washington’s inaugural year.

“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…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….”

Thursday, November 26, “[B]eing the day appointed for a thanksgiving I went to [New York City’s] St. Paul’s Chapel though it was most inclement and stormy—but few in church,” President Washington penned. He rejoiced by contributing “7 pds. 10s. 4d. for ‘provisions and beer’ to prisoners confined for debt in the New York City Jail.”

Thanksgiving revels ended with President Washington’s second retirement. Until, antebellum merchants began advertising its benefits [1816-1859]. In 1845, the same year the City of Washington issued its first official Thanksgiving proclamation, District merchants promoted “the availability of potables for the feast: ‘Sixty barrels of white wine, 40 barrels of champagne and New York cider, all by recent packet via the seaport of Alexandria.’”

President Zachary Taylor [LA-Whig, 1849-1850] “thought it was up to the states to decide when and where to declare a Thanksgiving holiday.” For others the holiday was a violation of the Constitution’s separation of Church and State. Southerners mostly saw Thanksgiving as “another manifestation of intrusive, New England moralism.”

In 1858 Alexandria Mayor William D. Massey requested a day of Thanksgiving. The Council voted him down. Virginia Governor [1856-1860) and Confederate General Henry Wise [1861-1865] refused to recognize the “theatrical national claptrap that is Thanksgiving.”

In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation “took effect;” the newly created State of West Virginia was admitted to the Union, and the Civil War seemed forever ongoing. Then “on July 3, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett’s Charge, a rare error in judgment,” historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote.

“For three days, July 1-3, more than 150,000 soldiers clashed in a series of Confederate assaults and Union defenses,” the National Park Service [NPS] explained. “On the third day of the Gettysburg battle, Lee ordered an assault on the Union’s center…Union guns decimated the attacking Confederates, injuring or killing nearly 50 percent of the approaching brigades…The death toll on both sides was ‘horrible:’ 10,000 soldiers killed or mortally wounded, 30,000 injured, and 10,000 captured or missing.”

“Never again did the South have the strength to mount an offensive into the North,” Schlesinger said. Gettysburg, according to most, was not only the Civil War’s bloodiest battle it was also the High Water Mark of the Rebellion.

Lincoln’s October 3, 1863,Thanksgiving Proclamation: “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,…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 theater of military conflict;….

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines…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 battlefield, and the country,… I do, therefore,…set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father.”

Lincoln’s hard-war military strategy succeeding, the President revealed his reconstruction policy on December 8, 1863: “Looking now to the present and future, and with reference to a resumption of the national authority within the States wherein that authority has been suspended,…[N]othing will be attempted beyond what is amply justified by the Constitution. The suggestion in the proclamation as to maintaining the political framework of the States on what is called reconstruction is made in the hope that it may do good, without danger of harm.”

Defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee signed his notarized Amnesty Oath on October 2, 1865. “I, Robert E. Lee of Lexington, Virginia do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.” Amnesty Oaths were required, “each having the aforesaid and not having since violated it.”

Would Stewart Rhodes, 2009 Oath Keepers’ founder sign such an Oath today? Rhodes participated in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol; one of five defendants who pleaded not guilty to seditious conspiracy, a rare Civil War-era offense. His trial was still ongoing as of October 15, 2022.

In 1858 Republican Senatorial nominee Abraham Lincoln stood on the steps of the Illinois State Capitol and delivered his House Divided speech. The issue: slavery. The topic: the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford. Lincoln borrowed a Bible passage, Matthew 12.25 and railed.

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it,” Lincoln said. “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

“The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than half the States by State Constitutions, and from most of the National territory by Congressional prohibition. Four days later, commenced the struggle which ended in repealing that Constitutional prohibition [formation of the Kansas-Nebraska territories and Act; repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820]. This opened all the National territory to slavery….”

King James Bible, Matthew 12.30: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.”

“President Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation may never have been issued had it not been for the good will of New Hampshire magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale,” the NPS said.

“If every State should join in union thanksgiving, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States?” Hale asked Lincoln on September 28, 1863. President Lincoln agreed and the United States has celebrated a day of Thanksgiving and Praise every year since.

Let’s make this Thanksgiving particularly Praiseworthy!

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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