Not All Presidents Officially Called For Thanksgiving

BACK STORY

November 29, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

We're only 72 hours past the sanctioned Day of National Gluttony, Thanksgiving, when it's considered unpatriotic to take on anything less than 25,000 calories.

I'm sure everyone by now has had enough turkey, dressing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, peas, wedges of Aunt Maude's world famous pumpkin pie and Alka-Seltzer to last until Christmas, which comes around in only 26 days.

However, I'm hoping that you've saved a little room for a calorie-free sliver of Thanksgiving history that was brought to my attention the other day by retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, whose hobbies include collecting and committing to memory arcane facts and incidents relating to U.S. history.

On Monday, President Barack Obama issued his first Thanksgiving Day proclamation, which set Nov. 26, 2009, as a National Day of Thanksgiving, while reminding us that the first president to do so was George Washington.

"From our earliest days of independence, and in times of tragedy and triumph, Americans have come together to celebrate Thanksgiving," read the Obama proclamation.

"I encourage all the people of the United States to come together, whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers or any place where family, friends and neighbors may gather, with gratitude for all we have received in the past year; to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own; and to share our bounty with others."

The first national Thanksgiving Day came in December 1777, when the 13 colonies celebrated the surrender Oct. 17 of British Gen. John Burgoyne's army of 6,000 after the Battle of Saratoga.

It may be a commonly held belief that after Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving on Oct. 3, 1789, every president thereafter followed suit.

Not true, says Fader.

"Thomas Jefferson refused to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation when he was president," said Fader.

However, when he was serving in the Virginia Assembly in 1774, Jefferson introduced a resolution calling for a Day of Fasting and Prayer, and as Virginia governor, he set aside a day of "Public and solemn Thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God" in 1779.

As the nation's third president, serving from 1801 to 1809, Jefferson altered his attitude toward issuing such proclamations.

In 1808, the Rev. Samuel Miller had written a letter to Jefferson suggesting a national day of fasting and prayer.

Jefferson's response was crafted by the Constitution.

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. ... Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government," he wrote to Miller.

"But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from ... civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents," Jefferson concluded.

"In other words," Fader said, "a separation of church and state."

This was not an off-the-cuff notion of Jefferson's.

In 1802, in response to a letter from the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association regarding his election as president, Jefferson used the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state."

In a published online interview in 2002 with The Rutherford Institute, a national civil liberties organization, Daniel L. Dreisbach, author of "Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State," said, "In my book I argue that Jefferson would have thought that his wall of separation was most appropriately placed between state governments and the national governments on matters relating to religion, such as Thanksgiving Day proclamations."

Dreisbach said that because Jefferson balked at such proclamations, his Federalist critics said this proved that he was "a political atheist and infidel."

He added: "I think Jefferson believed that what was appropriate for a state or local official to do, such as issuing a Thanksgiving Proclamation, which he did as Governor of Virginia, was, because of that language in the First Amendment, not appropriate for him to do as President of the United States."

Jefferson's wall, he explained, separated what was appropriate for a "national chief executive to do and what was appropriate for a state chief executive to do."

Thanksgiving proclamations had a bouncy time of it between the eras of Jefferson and Lincoln, who issued a proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863, that called for a national observance of Thanksgiving on the fourth Tuesday of November.

For the past 146 years, since the age of Lincoln, the Thanksgiving proclamation has endured as part of the national calendar.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt acceded to the pleas of merchants wishing to extend the Christmas shopping season by moving Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November. After a national uproar ensued, Thanksgiving became a legal holiday in 1941, and the date was fixed at the fourth Thursday in November.

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