Debating Thanksgiving Day origins

Maryland statesman John Hanson had a hand in the creation of the November holiday


As area residents tuck into their traditional Maryland crab cakes and sauerkraut this Thanksgiving Day, they might want to take a moment away from all the palaver about pilgrims and Plymouth Rock to reflect on the Maryland statesman who really created the national holiday celebrated Thursday - John Hanson of Charles County.

Or so say Hanson supporters. Actually, there is considerable disagreement among historians on who established the holiday.

Hanson served as "President of the United States in Congress Assembled" under the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and '82. The Articles preceded the U.S. Constitution as an organizing document among the colonies.

Some claim Hanson, and not George Washington, was the first president of the United States. Detractors point out that, before the Constitution, there really wasn't an office of the president or, for that matter, a country to be the president of.

Whatever his presidential status, Hanson did issue a proclamation declaring Thursday, Nov. 28, 1782, "a day of solemn Thanksgiving to God for all his mercies."

"It's very clear that [Hanson] was the first one to do the tradition we have now," according to Stanley Klos, author of President Who? Forgotten Founders, on the presidents of the United States under the Articles of Confederacy. "He really was a great man."

By first, Klos means that Hanson put the holiday at the end of November, on a Thursday. There were other Thanksgivings before and since. Klos, by the way, lists Hanson as the third president, making George Washington the 11th.

"George Washington is the father of Thanksgiving," according to George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens spokeswoman Melissa Wood. Wood points to an article in the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser describing Washington's declaration designating the last Thursday in November a "day of public Thanksgiving."

Unfortunately for Washington, though, his Thanksgiving declaration was for Nov. 26, 1789, seven years after Hanson's.

Similar Johnny-come-lately Thanksgiving claimants include Abraham Lincoln, who established the national holiday on the last Thursday in November, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who moved it to the fourth Thursday to extend the Christmas shopping season.

The first Thanksgiving of popular lore - the one with the pilgrims - was a one-time affair to celebrate the 1621 harvest in Plymouth, but that was a regional harvest festival.

To John Hanson Briscoe - who, when asked about relative Hanson over the phone, responded "You mean the first president?" - the Thanksgiving claim is just another example of the Washington public relations machine's attempt to steal the thunder of lesser-known Hanson.

"Hanson was very quiet," according to Briscoe, a retired St. Mary's County Circuit Court judge and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, who has done considerable research on his illustrious forebear. "He came from humble means, didn't make a big deal about his contributions."

"The John Hanson Society is not as well-funded as the George Washington Society," Briscoe said. In fact, the record on the once-active Hanson society seems to run out in the early 1980s.

Locating traces of Hanson's legacy was easier. U.S. Route 50 bears his name from Washington to Annapolis, and a small bronze statue adorns the president's desk on the floor of the Maryland Senate along with one of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Larger versions of both graced the statuary hall at the U.S. Capitol until Congress limited states to only one, and Hanson was moved to a nearby corridor.

Briscoe, Klos and other Hanson fans can still celebrate his life April 15, declared John Hanson Day by then-Gov. Marvin Mandel in 1973.

There were other, more meaty issues on the table during Hanson's political career. He is credited with keeping Maryland out of the Continental Congress until Northern states had agreed to limit their western borders, and the Post Office and the first national bank were established while he presided over the Congress. He died Nov. 22, 1783, a year after leaving office - around Thanksgiving, although that year it wasn't celebrated.

Briscoe and Klos took pains to say they didn't want to denigrate Washington, just get Hanson his due. Briscoe called back after a phone interview to make this clear.

"In today's political atmosphere," he said, "I certainly hope this doesn't generate any [charges of] un-American feelings that I'm questioning a great American war hero.

"Have a good Thanksgiving, and think of John Hanson or George Washington. Whichever you prefer."

Chris Landers writes for the Capital News Service.

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