Our First Thanksgiving as a New Nation

By Jennifer Jensen
Nov 17, 2020

Whenever we talk about Thanksgiving and its origins, we always refer to 1621. We talk of the Pilgrims and American Indians and the great feast they had together celebrating the abundant harvest which was, in great part, thanks to the Indians’ help. That is a part of our past well worth remembering.  But there is another Thanksgiving story equally important that we don’t often remember anymore. This story is about the first Thanksgiving we shared as the new United States of America and this Thanksgiving had nothing to do with harvests or Pilgrims or Indians.

It all happened very soon after George Washington was inaugurated as the first president and right near the end of the very first session of the Congress of the United States. On September 25, 1789, Mr. Elias Boudinot, a Congressman from New Jersey, rose to speak. He had a very specific idea in mind to share with the other members of Congress in attendance. As he began, he reminded the others of the recent important happenings in their newly formed country. The Congressional notes tell the story,

[Mr. Boudinot] could not think of letting the session pass . . . without offering an opportunity to all citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he has poured down upon them. With this view then, he would move the following resolution:

Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would 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 Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.1

This Thanksgiving proclamation would not be a reminder about great harvests or friendly peoples, this Thanksgiving would be about the Constitution and its new form of government as well as the peaceable way it all came about for everyone’s safety and happiness.

Surprisingly, only a month before, President Washington himself had written to James Madison mentioning that he was contemplating asking the Senate to implement a day of Thanksgiving. But this was not necessary as Representative Boudinot, feeling the same way, began the process in the House of Representatives.

After some debate about the appropriateness of this idea and whether they had the power to put forward such a resolution, Representative Roger Sherman, a Congressman from Connecticut as well as a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, spoke in agreement with Mr. Boudinot. He felt the resolution was justified and reminded them of the long tradition of calling for a day of Thanksgiving. In fact, having a day of prayer and Thanksgiving, or even fasting, prayer, and Thanksgiving, was common. Representative Sherman reminded them it was more than just a routine practice in the colonies. The idea actually extended back to the Old Testament times after King Solomon finished building the Temple.

The resolution passed. Within just a few days of receiving the resolution, President Washington issued the Proclamation.2 It was subsequently published in newspapers throughout the fledgling nation.

Perhaps the first Thanksgiving held here on the North American Continent was for the Pilgrims to celebrate a great harvest with their American Indian friends. But the first Thanksgiving held in these United States was actually to give thanks to God for His help in establishing the new constitutional form of government through peaceful means. This is very different from the usual history we tell at Thanksgiving, but even though it isn’t as well known, it is just as important. Today, when the Constitution seems to be hanging by a thread and peace and happiness appear far away, it is a great time to remember the first national day of Thanksgiving proclaimed by George Washington, first President of these United States of America.

1 Annals of Cong. 914 (1789), http://blogs.law.unc.edu/library/2019/11/25/a-little-thanksgiving-day-trivia-via-legislative-history-records/

2 https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-first-president/thanksgiving/