Perhaps because it always falls several weeks after elections, Thanksgiving is never very politicized. (Perhaps the ritual of gorging oneself on turkey and stuffing is too sacred to be profaned.) While we certainly have enough political debates throughout the calendar year, and we are now gearing up for the nauseating annual “War on Christmas,” Thanksgiving is often seen as a benign and happy holiday in which all people, regardless of political or religious beliefs, are thankful for the blessings in their lives—not to mention food on their plates and football on their televisions. Indeed, perhaps the most pressing debate that comes up is, “why do the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys always get the nationally broadcasted games?”
But this has not always been the case. Though based on the mythic origins of Pilgrims and Natives feasting together several centuries ago, celebrations of Thanksgiving were sporadic and far apart. Every so often, usually at the end of a war, kings or other magistrates would declare a “Day of Thanksgiving” in which everyone would reflect on the blessed state of their nation, the goodness of their leaders, and the fortune that whatever trial had been present was now past. This practice embodies the dual duties of Britain’s king—as sovereign over a vast empire that now included growing settlements in the Americas, and as leader of the Anglican Church that, though not even the dominant religion in the colonies, was still understood to be the symbolic head of national religiosity.
Celebrations became more common once America gained her freedom. Starting with the Continental Congress during and immediately after the Revolution, and continued by Presidents Washington and Adams, these were occasions in which the federal government published a message that was to be both repeated and expanded upon by local clergyman. “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God,” Washington declared in his first Thanksgiving proclamation, “I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Americans were to be thankful “for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed”—and in celebrating that unity and peace, the message was meant to be a unifying practice in and of itself. The events typically included community gatherings, usually capped off with a sermon by the local minister.
But these Thanksgiving celebrations soon became political arenas. With the upswing of partisanship in the 1790s, the day’s sermons—which were frequently published following the event—became political orations that emphasized specific party ideas as much as gratitude. When John Adams was president, he declared two days of Thanksgiving and used them as a way to both validate his controversial actions as well as reaffirm his image as a Christian leader. This latter motive became especially important as he faced off in the first national and bitter campaign in the early republic, when he and his followers worked hard to depict Thomas Jefferson as a religious skeptic and unorthodox deist. (To form, Jefferson never declared a day of Thanksgiving during his two terms, though his successor, James Madison, renewed the practice.) Indeed, declarations of Thanksgiving just became another tool in the partisan toolbox for presidents and local ministers in the constant battle over America’s political future during the early republic.
Thanksgiving didn’t become a national and annual holiday until Abraham Lincoln. After that, presidential messages on Thanksgiving, when they appeared, were mostly benign and devoid of their former political punch. Local congregations, too, began to only focus on the spiritual necessity of gratitude and the importance of family (and food). Today’s celebrations contain zero resemblance to the partisan examples only two centuries ago. The day’s location on the calendar, of course, is probably the dominant reason for the change: if Thanksgiving were to take place on, say, the third Thursday of October, and thus a fortnight before elections, I’m sure it would have a very different tone.
The history of Thanksgiving is just another example of the vexed relationship between religion and politics in America’s history. Though we like to pride ourselves on the clean separation between Church and State, the experience has been much messier: religion has often been used for political means, and politics have often infused religious practice. Even a seemingly innocuous celebration like Thanksgiving has been an event fraught with tension. Such is the paradox of the American tradition.