Presidents from Lincoln to FDR kept the Thanksgiving tradition going
The Civil War was raging when Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that started the process of making Thanksgiving a federal holiday. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
Previous presidents had issued Thanksgiving proclamations before. Washington had declared the first official national Thanksgiving in 1789, and Lincoln himself had issued proclamations in the spring of 1862 and 1863. But these were days of thanksgiving for military victories. His October 1863 proclamation was the first time that a president had singled out a specific date. He designated last Thursday in November which would be the occasion of a holiday specifically called Thanksgiving.
It was signed on October 3, 1863, just months after a Union victory at the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln’s proclamation declared that the wartorn nation’s year had nonetheless “been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties,” it continued, “which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added. They are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
The country’s population was growing despite being in the throes of “a war of unequalled magnitude and severity.” Business was booming and peace had been preserved with foreign powers (such as Britain) who might have joined the Confederate cause.
That year the President began the tradition of pardoning a turkey in response to the pleas of his son Tad Lincoln. This is according to the White House Historical Society. The next year’s Thanksgiving proclamation celebrated some of the same things and noted the same "last Thursday in November" date.
Lincoln’s proclamation was “the culmination of a 36-year campaign started by so-called ‘mother’ or ‘godmother’ of Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. That's according to Olivia B. Waxman writing for Time. Hale had publicized and partially wrote the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She was the “Lady Editor” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a massively successful women’s magazine. Hale thought that the celebration “should be a national festival observed by all the people. It should be as an exponent of our republican institutions.” The celebration was was widely observed if not enshrined in law.
Using her editorial voice, Hale pushed for this aim and started a letter-writing campaign to government officials. Writing to Abraham Lincoln himself, Hale argued for the last Thursday in November. She believed this on the grounds that George Washington declared the first official national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, 1789, writes Waxman.
In between that first official Thanksgiving and Lincoln’s proclamation, “subsequent presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied,” writes the National Archives.
“Early Americans celebrated Thanksgiving not as a fixed annual event, but as a series of ad hoc holidays called in response to specific events,” writes Paul Quigley for The New York Times. “These were religious occasions, intended to invoke God’s help to cope with hardships, or to offer God thanks for positive developments.”
However, Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation started something, the Pilgrim Hall Museum writes: an “unbroken string of annual presidential Thanksgiving proclamations” that stretched forward all the way to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, when Congress passed a law fixing the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.
Presidents after Roosevelt continued to issue Thanksgiving proclamations but they were more formalities, since the holiday was now federal law. But because Lincoln’s 1863 declaration is what started it all, it's “regarded as the true beginning of the national Thanksgiving holiday,” the museum writes.