Evolution of the Thanksgiving Proclamation

From Washington through Trump

By
John T. Woolley

A long evolution in the idea and meaning of Thanksgiving Day can be traced in Presidential thanksgiving proclamations. From being a call to participate in a day of solemn reflection and expression of thanks to a Supreme Being, the Thanksgiving Proclamation has evolved to evoke a distinctively American history and celebration of certain core values. (Jump to the list of proclamations)

Washington (in 1789 and 1795) and Madison (1815) proclaimed that there be a day of reflection and public thanksgiving for peace and abundance. Prior to that time and continuing afterward, days of thanksgiving had been observed in individual colonies and states. It was especially well-established as a family “domestic occasion” in New England. (Pleck, 775).

Lincoln’s second 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation began a national holiday tradition with a standardized date—the last Thursday in November. Lincoln called for a day of “thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens” as well as “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” Subsequent presidents followed Lincoln in specifying the "last Thursday."[1]

However, sometimes November includes five Thursdays, and in those cases Thanksgiving is always very close to Christmas. Merchants learned that most Christmas shopping was delayed until after Thanksgiving. In response to concerns that a “late” Thanksgiving would reduce consumer spending, Roosevelt, in 1939, proclaimed the observance to be on the fourth Thursday in November (November 23 vs Nov 30 for the last Thursday in 1939).

Not all states followed the national holiday, with nearly half observing the traditional “last Thursday” rather than the fourth. FDR’s controversial decision was codified by Congress in 1941 (H. J. Res 41).

Starting about this time, the language of Thanksgiving Day Proclamations has evolved to remind citizens of American values and ideas, and of the event's direct link to the “first Thanksgiving” of Plymouth Colony.

In examining this evolving language, we contrast three periods in the history of the presidency: Lincoln through Hoover; FDR through Carter; and Reagan to the present. Altogether, as of 2018, there were 161 instances of Thanksgiving Day proclamations. Of those, 86 (or 53%) are after 1932.

A consistent feature of Thanksgiving Proclamations throughout is reference to a Supreme Being.[2] These occur nearly five times on average in every proclamation except three, when there are none: Nixon 1969; Ford 1975, and Obama 2016. Fifty-three percent of these "Supreme Being" references are in post-1932 proclamations—exactly the proportion of post-1932 proclamations.

However, after 1932, Thanksgiving Proclamations more strongly emphasize the “original” Thanksgiving of the Plymouth Colony and regularly instruct citizens to recall America’s unique commitment to values of liberty, freedom, human dignity, community, and democracy.[3] Rather than simply expressing gratitude for, and reflecting on, peace and prosperity, Thanksgiving Day became a celebration of a distinctive American history.

All, or nearly all, specific historical references (Plymouth, Pilgrims, Indians, Wampanoag, settlers, etc.) have been in proclamations from the post-1932 period.

This historical trend is illustrated in this graph, contrasting the average number of references to a Supreme Being with references to American history and values (based on our search terms).

Graph of Thanksgiving Proclamations

 

 

Thanksgiving Proclamations

Date

Related

Document Title

October 3, 1789

George Washington

Proclamation—Day of National Thanksgiving

January 1, 1795

George Washington

Proclamation 6—Day of Public Thanksgiving

March 4, 1815

James Madison

Proclamation 20—Recommending a Day of Public Thanksgiving for Peace

April 10, 1862

Abraham Lincoln

Proclamation 88—Day of Public Thanksgiving for Victories During the Civil War

July 15, 1863

Abraham Lincoln

Proclamation 103—Day of Thanksgiving, Praise, and Prayer, August 6, 1863

October 3, 1863

Abraham Lincoln

Proclamation 106—Thanksgiving Day, 1863

October 20, 1864

Abraham Lincoln

Proclamation 118—Thanksgiving Day, 1864

October 28, 1865

Andrew Johnson

Proclamation 147—Thanksgiving Day, 1865

October 8, 1866

Andrew Johnson

Proclamation 158—Thanksgiving Day, 1866

October 26, 1867

Andrew Johnson

Proclamation 169—Thanksgiving Day, 1867

October 12, 1868

Andrew Johnson

Proclamation 178—Thanksgiving Day, 1868

October 5, 1869

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 186—Thanksgiving Day, 1869

October 21, 1870

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 195—Thanksgiving Day, 1870

October 28, 1871

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 202—Thanksgiving Day, 1871

October 11, 1872

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 210—Thanksgiving Day, 1872

October 14, 1873

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 217—Thanksgiving Day, 1873

October 27, 1874

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 221—Thanksgiving Day, 1874

October 27, 1875

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 226—Thanksgiving Day, 1875

October 26, 1876

Ulysses S. Grant

Proclamation 233—Thanksgiving Day, 1876

October 29, 1877

Rutherford B. Hayes

Proclamation 239—Thanksgiving Day, 1877

October 30, 1878

Rutherford B. Hayes

Proclamation 241—Thanksgiving Day, 1878

November 3, 1879

Rutherford B. Hayes

Proclamation 244—Thanksgiving Day, 1879

November 1, 1880

Rutherford B. Hayes

Proclamation 247—Thanksgiving Day, 1880

November 4, 1881

Chester A. Arthur

Proclamation 252—Thanksgiving Day, 1881

October 25, 1882

Chester A. Arthur

Proclamation 254—Thanksgiving Day, 1882

October 26, 1883

Chester A. Arthur

Proclamation 256—Thanksgiving Day, 1883

November 7, 1884

Chester A. Arthur

Proclamation 261—Thanksgiving Day, 1884

November 2, 1885

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 273—Thanksgiving Day, 1885

November 1, 1886

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 278—Thanksgiving Day, 1886

October 25, 1887

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 281—Thanksgiving Day, 1887

November 1, 1888

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 285—Thanksgiving Day, 1888

November 1, 1889

Benjamin Harrison

Proclamation 290—Thanksgiving Day, 1889

November 8, 1890

Benjamin Harrison

Proclamation 299—Thanksgiving Day, 1890

November 13, 1891

Benjamin Harrison

Proclamation 313—Thanksgiving Day, 1891

November 4, 1892

Benjamin Harrison

Proclamation 340—Thanksgiving Day, 1892

November 3, 1893

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 363—Thanksgiving Day, 1893

November 1, 1894

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 370—Thanksgiving Day, 1894

November 4, 1895

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 379—Thanksgiving Day, 1895

November 4, 1896

Grover Cleveland

Proclamation 388—Thanksgiving Day, 1896

October 29, 1897

William McKinley

Proclamation 408—Thanksgiving Day, 1897

October 28, 1898

William McKinley

Proclamation 426—Thanksgiving Day, 1898

October 25, 1899

William McKinley

Proclamation 441—Thanksgiving Day, 1899

October 29, 1900

William McKinley

Proclamation 452—Thanksgiving Day, 1900

November 2, 1901

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 466—Thanksgiving Day, 1901

October 29, 1902

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 494—Thanksgiving Day, 1902

October 31, 1903

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 508—Thanksgiving Day, 1903

November 1, 1904

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 533—Thanksgiving Day, 1904

November 2, 1905

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 605—Thanksgiving Day, 1905

October 22, 1906

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 665—Thanksgiving Day, 1906

October 26, 1907

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 776—Thanksgiving Day, 1907

October 31, 1908

Theodore Roosevelt

Proclamation 822—Thanksgiving Day, 1908

November 15, 1909

William Howard Taft

Proclamation 883—Thanksgiving Day, 1909

November 5, 1910

William Howard Taft

Proclamation 1099—Thanksgiving Day, 1910

October 30, 1911

William Howard Taft

Proclamation 1172—Thanksgiving Day, 1911

November 7, 1912

William Howard Taft

Proclamation 1223—Thanksgiving Day, 1912

October 2, 1913

Woodrow Wilson

Proclamation 1256—Thanksgiving Day, 1913

October 28, 1914

Woodrow Wilson

Proclamation 1284—Thanksgiving Day, 1914

October 20, 1915

Woodrow Wilson

Proclamation 1316—Thanksgiving Day, 1915

November 17, 1916

Woodrow Wilson

Proclamation 1352—Thanksgiving Day, 1916

November 7, 1917

Woodrow Wilson

Proclamation 1405—Thanksgiving Day, 1917

November 16, 1918

Woodrow Wilson

Proclamation 1496—Thanksgiving Day, 1918

November 5, 1919

Woodrow Wilson

Proclamation 1539—Thanksgiving Day, 1919

November 5, 1923

Calvin Coolidge

Proclamation 1680—Thanksgiving Day, 1923

November 5, 1924

Calvin Coolidge

Proclamation 1715—Thanksgiving Day, 1924

October 23, 1928

Calvin Coolidge

Proclamation 1855—Thanksgiving Day, 1928

November 5, 1929

Herbert Hoover

Proclamation 1895—Thanksgiving Day, 1929

November 6, 1930

Herbert Hoover

Proclamation 1925—Thanksgiving Day, 1930

November 3, 1931

Herbert Hoover

Proclamation 1974—Thanksgiving Day, 1931

November 3, 1932

Herbert Hoover

Proclamation 2015—Thanksgiving Day, 1932

November 21, 1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2062—Thanksgiving Day

November 15, 1934

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2107—Thanksgiving Day

November 12, 1935

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2146—Thanksgiving Day

November 12, 1936

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2208—Thanksgiving Day

November 9, 1937

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2260—Thanksgiving Day

November 19, 1938

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2310—Thanksgiving Day

October 31, 1939

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2373—Thanksgiving Day

November 9, 1940

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2441—Thanksgiving Day

November 8, 1941

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2522—Thanksgiving Day

November 26, 1942

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2571—Thanksgiving Day

November 11, 1943

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2600—Thanksgiving Day, 1943

November 1, 1944

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Proclamation 2629—Thanksgiving Day, 1944

November 12, 1945

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2673—Thanksgiving Day, 1945

October 28, 1946

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2709—Thanksgiving Day, 1946

November 10, 1947

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2756—Thanksgiving Day, 1947

November 12, 1948

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2823—Thanksgiving Day, 1948

November 10, 1949

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2864—Thanksgiving Day, 1949

October 19, 1950

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2909—Thanksgiving Day, 1950

November 1, 1951

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2952—Thanksgiving Day, 1951

November 8, 1952

Harry S. Truman

Proclamation 2996—Thanksgiving Day, 1952

November 7, 1953

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3036—Thanksgiving Day, 1953

November 6, 1954

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3077—Thanksgiving Day, 1954

October 11, 1955

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3116—Thanksgiving Day, 1955

November 12, 1956

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3163—Thanksgiving Day, 1956

November 8, 1957

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3210—Thanksgiving Day, 1957

October 31, 1958

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3264—Thanksgiving Day, 1958

November 5, 1959

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3325—Thanksgiving Day, 1959

November 11, 1960

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Proclamation 3380—Thanksgiving Day, 1960

October 28, 1961

John F. Kennedy

Proclamation 3438—Thanksgiving Day, 1961

November 7, 1962

John F. Kennedy

Proclamation 3505—Thanksgiving Day, 1962

November 5, 1963

John F. Kennedy

Proclamation 3560—Thanksgiving Day, 1963

November 13, 1964

Lyndon B. Johnson

Proclamation 3627—Thanksgiving Day

November 10, 1965

Lyndon B. Johnson

Proclamation 3687—Thanksgiving Day, 1965

October 17, 1966

Lyndon B. Johnson

Proclamation 3752—Thanksgiving Day, 1966

November 9, 1967

Lyndon B. Johnson

Proclamation 3819—Thanksgiving Day, 1967

November 15, 1968

Lyndon B. Johnson

Proclamation 3881—Thanksgiving Day, 1968

November 12, 1969

Richard Nixon

Proclamation 3944—Thanksgiving Day, 1969

November 5, 1970

Richard Nixon

Proclamation 4021—Thanksgiving Day, 1970

November 5, 1971

Richard Nixon

Proclamation 4093—Thanksgiving Day, 1971

November 17, 1972

Richard Nixon

Proclamation 4170—Thanksgiving Day, 1972

November 16, 1973

Richard Nixon

Proclamation 4255—Thanksgiving Day, 1973

November 11, 1974

Gerald R. Ford

Proclamation 4333—Thanksgiving Day, 1974

November 4, 1975

Gerald R. Ford

Proclamation 4405—Thanksgiving Day, 1975

October 25, 1976

Gerald R. Ford

Proclamation 4474—Thanksgiving Day, 1976

November 11, 1977

Jimmy Carter

Proclamation 4537—Thanksgiving Day, 1977

October 20, 1978

Jimmy Carter

Proclamation 4607—Thanksgiving Day, 1978

September 28, 1979

Jimmy Carter

Proclamation 4693—Thanksgiving Day, 1979

November 13, 1980

Jimmy Carter

Proclamation 4803—Thanksgiving Day, 1980

November 12, 1981

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 4883—Thanksgiving Day, 1981

September 27, 1982

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 4979—Thanksgiving Day, 1982

September 15, 1983

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 5098—Thanksgiving Day, 1983

October 19, 1984

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 5269—Thanksgiving Day, 1984

November 15, 1985

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 5412—Thanksgiving Day, 1985

October 13, 1986

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 5551—Thanksgiving Day, 1986

July 28, 1987

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 5687—Thanksgiving Day, 1987

August 4, 1988

Ronald Reagan

Proclamation 5844—Thanksgiving Day, 1988

November 17, 1989

George Bush

Proclamation 6073—Thanksgiving Day, 1989

November 14, 1990

George Bush

Proclamation 6229—Thanksgiving Day, 1990

November 25, 1991

George Bush

Proclamation 6380—Thanksgiving Day, 1991

November 20, 1992

George Bush

Proclamation 6508—Thanksgiving Day, 1992

November 17, 1993

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 6625—Thanksgiving Day, 1993

October 27, 1994

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 6751—Thanksgiving Day, 1994

November 9, 1995

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 6849—Thanksgiving Day, 1995

November 11, 1996

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 6954—Thanksgiving Day, 1996

November 21, 1997

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 7052—Thanksgiving Day, 1997

November 17, 1998

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 7148—Thanksgiving Day, 1998

November 20, 1999

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 7255—Thanksgiving Day, 1999

November 17, 2000

William J. Clinton

Proclamation 7381—Thanksgiving Day, 2000

November 16, 2001

George W. Bush

Proclamation 7504—Thanksgiving Day, 2001

November 21, 2002

George W. Bush

Proclamation 7628—Thanksgiving Day, 2002

November 21, 2003

George W. Bush

Proclamation 7738—Thanksgiving Day, 2003

November 23, 2004

George W. Bush

Proclamation 7849—Thanksgiving Day, 2004

November 18, 2005

George W. Bush

Proclamation 7963—Thanksgiving Day, 2005

November 16, 2006

George W. Bush

Proclamation 8085—Thanksgiving Day, 2006

November 15, 2007

George W. Bush

Proclamation 8204—Thanksgiving Day, 2007

November 21, 2008

George W. Bush

Proclamation 8322—Thanksgiving Day, 2008

November 20, 2009

Barack Obama

Proclamation 8458—Thanksgiving Day, 2009

November 23, 2010

Barack Obama

Proclamation 8606—Thanksgiving Day, 2010

November 16, 2011

Barack Obama

Proclamation 8755—Thanksgiving Day, 2011

November 20, 2012

Barack Obama

Proclamation 8908—Thanksgiving Day, 2012

November 26, 2013

Barack Obama

Proclamation 9063—Thanksgiving Day, 2013

November 26, 2014

Barack Obama

Proclamation 9214—Thanksgiving Day, 2014

November 20, 2015

Barack Obama

Proclamation 9372—Thanksgiving Day, 2015

November 23, 2016

Barack Obama

Proclamation 9546—Thanksgiving Day, 2016

November 17, 2017

Donald J. Trump

Proclamation 9678—Thanksgiving Day, 2017

November 20, 2018

Donald J. Trump

Proclamation 9827—Thanksgiving Day, 2018

Sources

FDR Library, [nd]. “The Year we had Two Thanksgivings,” http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/thanksg.html

History.com. 2019. “History of Thanksgiving,” https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving

Library of Congress [nd] “August 1939 [Thanksgiving Timeline].” https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactiviti...

Pleck, Elizabeth, 1999. “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States.” Journal of Social History 32:4 (Summer): 773-789

United States, National Archives and Records Administration. [nd] “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving.” https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving

Various Authors, 1843. “History of Thanksgiving,” Boston Recorder December 7.

____________________
[1] In 1865 Andrew Johnson proclaimed the first Thursday in December.

[2] Containing text: almighty OR creator OR God OR "the Lord" OR divine OR "ruler of nations" OR "supreme author" OR "ruler of the universe" OR "giver of every good and perfect gift" OR "give Him thanks" OR "His benefits" OR providence OR "one greater than ourselves" OR "his bounties" OR "his protections" OR "Most High" OR "Giver of Good" OR "Giver of all things"

[3] Containing text: freedom OR equality OR liberty OR brotherhood OR justice OR heritage OR dignity OR "pursuit of happiness" OR "worth of man" OR "free elections" OR "national tradition" OR "ties of friendship" OR respect OR "bind us together" OR "bonds of fellowship" OR "duty" OR "our debt" OR "our gratitude" OR "sense of decency" OR compassion OR "needs of others" OR "binds us together" OR "our common blessings" OR Wampanoag OR Indian OR Native OR tribe OR Plymouth OR pilgrim OR settler OR colony OR forebears OR forefather OR " custom " OR tradition OR ancestor OR "history of our country"