Thanksgiving is distinctly American. The United States is the only nation in history to enshrine feasting, football, and shopping under the banner of giving thanks. Recently, historians have been keen on correcting the narrative of Thanksgiving, noting that it is because of Sara Josepha Hale, the nineteenth-century letter writing journalist, and not the Pilgrims, that the modern holiday exists. But the story’s history is more complex. It is in moments when the nation is deeply divided that someone comes forth and proposes that Americans give thanks for the blessings that they do have. And it is in these moments that the narrative became the one Americans celebrate today.
The nineteenth century was a tumultuous time. Contention over what role the government should play in the affairs of the states and lives of people increased dramatically. In 1841, riots broke out in front of the White House over the re-establishment of the Second Bank of the United States, and Frederick Douglass continued to stoke the fire of the abolitionist movement in Boston. In the same year, and in the same city, Bostonian Reverend Alexander Young published Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, an account of the 1621 thanksgiving feast. Despite disease and starvation that had plagued the Pilgrims throughout the year, he wrote, the first Americans were still able to come together and give thanks. That narrative took hold, and since then, Pilgrims became part of the story. Young, it seems, used the Pilgrims in an attempt to remind a dividing nation to remain thankful.
By the 1850s – the time of Sara Josepha Hale – the Union was slowly dissolving under the pressure of slavery. In an attempt to ease the tension between North and South, Hale launched a national campaign to establish a day of thanks. She published recipes in her national magazine for squash, among other staples, and wrote hundreds of letters to every governor and president. In 1857, she wrote that on this new day of thanks, “we trust, there will be no blank in this number, nor a seat left vacant at the Table of the Nation.” President Abraham Lincoln agreed, and in 1863 issued the Thanksgiving proclamation, establishing a holiday he hoped would begin the healing process. Pilgrims, turkey, squash, and giving thanks – the narrative of Thanksgiving – came together because of conflict.
By the end of the nineteenth century, America was in crisis again. The frontier that had seemed to define the nation appeared to be closing, and the gap between the rich and poor split wide. Workers were striking and the Gold Standard that protected the wealthy seemed to be destroying the economy. Many believed that the country’s best days lay behind them. In the middle of these dark months, Reverend William DeLoss Love wrote in his 1895 The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England, “as we look back upon [the first thanksgiving] after nearly three centuries, it seems so wonderfully like the day we love that we claim it as the progenitor of our harvest feasts.” Now more than ever it seemed, Americans needed to give thanks, and Love pointed to the Pilgrims as examples.
A generation later, in 1941, economic security and freedom seemed to be in rapid retreat across the globe. Congress made Thanksgiving a national holiday that year. Americans must be thankful for democracy, and the freedoms that they enjoy, it said, freedoms that all peoples should share. In their view, that search for freedom brought the Pilgrims to the New World. Franklin Roosevelt reflected, “In a year which has seen calamity and sorrow fall upon many peoples elsewhere in the world may we give thanks for our preservation.”
In 2015, amidst conversations that “Black Lives Matter,” as well as a need to “Make America Great Again,” and a time when the political parties are as far apart as they were on the eve of The Civil War, perhaps it is time to remember that despite its problems, the United States is, and always has been in times of crisis, a nation of thanksgiving.