Thanks For A Thanksgiving Lesson By A Redemptorist Father

Did I tell you about when I got impeached? Maybe another time.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I really do not know much about many things. Even things that I have taken for granted my whole life. Like, would you believe the Thanksgiving Holiday even?

In the past, I’ve served up President George Washington’s prayer of Thanksgiving, dated November 1789. This year, I’ll share with you a little history lesson on this All-American holiday that I was completely ignorant of. 

As a Tennessean, I am happy to report that President Andrew Johnson (see photograph), who credits Abraham Lincoln for dusting off the custom, actually cemented the Thanksgiving Holiday permanently for these United States. As you will see, the holiday, as it is being altered today, what with stores opening for shopping, etc.,  would be virtually unrecognizable to our ancestors. President Buchanan brought the day out of mothballs , where it had lain for 46 years, as a national day of fasting and prayer to avert the Civil war. Following the lead of his predecessor, President Lincoln commemorated the day as day of prayer for victory in the war between the states.

How did I find all this out? By taking a trip back to the year of Our Lord, 1922. I didn’t even need a Tardis to pull this off. Just a library card, or access to Google books, is all that is required. Stuff like this just finds me.

The following is from a letter to the Ecclesiastical Review (published by the Catholic University of America) by Father Henry Borgmann, C.SS.R who is writing to supplement an earlier article published in the same journal on Catholic devotion to this American national holiday. Father Henry has the floor,

Thanksgiving Day As A National Holiday

To the Editor, The Ecclesiastical Review:

Supplementing the article in the August number of the Review on Thanksgiving Day as a day of popular Catholic devotion, allow me to add the following to what has been said.

There is a prevalent notion among Americans that Thanksgiving Day is of Puritan origin. This belief is largely based on statements made by writers like W. D. Love, in his The Fasts and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Chapt. XXVII), who assert that our American Thanksgiving Day is a perpetuation of a custom maintained in New England during Colonial times.

The fact is that such days of public thanksgiving were, while probably of British origin, customary in all the thirteen colonies since the time of Washington, though there was no such thing as a fixed annual celebration until President Lincoln established it.

This may be ascertained from the archives of the different State Libraries. Lincoln’s successor, President Johnson, secured the permanency of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday. The following list of Presidential Proclamations, published by the authority of Congress in 1900, shows the gradual development:

1789, Thursday, 26 November, proclaimed by President Washington in thanksgiving (Vol. I, p. 64)

1795, Thursday, 19 February, proclaimed by President Washington in thanksgiving (Vol. I, p. 179)

1798, Wednesday, 9 May, proclaimed by President Adams, day of fast and prayer (Vol. I, p. 269)

1799, Thursday, 25 April, proclaimed by President Adams, day of fast and prayer (Vol. I, p. 284)

1812, third Thursday of August, proclaimed by President Madison, day of prayer and fast (Vol. I, p. 513)

1813, second Thursday of September, proclaimed by President Madison, in thanksgiving (Vol. I, p. 532)

1814, Thursday, 12 January, proclaimed by President Madison, day of prayer and fast (Vol. I, p. 558)

1815, second Thursday of April, proclaimed by President Madison, in thanksgiving (Vol. I, p. 560)

1861, Friday, 4 January, proclaimed by President Buchanan, day of prayer and fast to avert the Civil War (Vol.X, p. 79)

1862, next weekly assemblage after issuance on 10 April, proclaimed by President Lincoln that God vouchsafe victory (Vol. VI, p. 89)

1863, Thursday, 6 August, proclaimed by President Lincoln, in thanksgiving (Vol. VI, p. 170)

1863, last Thursday of November, proclaimed by President Lincoln, in thanksgiving (Vol. VI, p. 172)

1864, last Thursday of November, proclaimed by President Lincoln, thanksgiving (Vol. VI, p. 228)

1865, first Thursday of December, proclaimed by President Johnson, in thanksgiving (Vol. VI, p. 332)

1866, last Thursday of November, proclaimed by President Johnson, in thanksgiving (Vol. VI, p. 438)

1867, last Thursday of November, proclaimed by President Johnson, in thanksgiving (Vol. VI, p. 550)

This proclamation contains the sentence which expressly states that Thanksgiving Day is of recent origin and may henceforth be considered established. It positively declares that Thanksgiving Day was established by Lincoln and is to be henceforth continued.

Here are the words:

In conformity with a recent custom that may now be regarded as established on national consent and approval, I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, do hereby recommend to my fellow citizens that Thursday, the 28th day of November next, be set apart and observed throughout the Republic as a day of national thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with whom are dominion and fear, and who maketh peace in His high places.

What can I say? We needed prayers.

In nearly one century, from 1776 to 1867, there were sixteen presidential proclamations of days of prayer or thanksgiving. The dire distress of the Civil War brought the nation and her Presidents to their knees. In the dark year of 1863 President Lincoln issued two calls for such days. In the bright days of the 45 years from 1815 to 1861 there was not a single presidential proclamation to the nation, calling upon the people to pray and fast or to make thanksgiving.

President Madison issued a national call to prayer during each year of his administration. Had he been succeeded by a President Johnson who seized on the recently established custom of devoting a special day to worship, then our Thanksgiving Day would have had a more continuous history. Had Lincoln been succeeded by a less religious President than Johnson, the custom by Lincoln established would have fallen into desuetude, as it did after President Madison established it during his administration.

Then too after the Civil War, the nation lay bleeding for many years and was more inclined to heed a President calling for a day of Thanksgiving. How any sensible historian can connect our Thanksgiving Day with the Mayflower or Plymouth Rock is a conundrum. Legends are as easily cultivated nowadays as in the most prosperous days of legendary lore when King Arthur and his Round Table supplied the minstrel with theme and the gaberlunyie-man with tales.

After 1867 Thanksgiving Day proclamations by Presidents have been annually issued, a fact offsetting the want of such proclamations before the Civil War as anything like an annual affair. Readers will recall the special proclamation of President Wilson, calling upon the nation to pray for peace at the opening of the World War. Just such proclamations have been the separate proclamations of previous decades, having no special date assigned, but issued as the need of the times dictated.

Thanksgiving Day, as it stands to-day, is the monument erected to God for the preservation of the Union, our most priceless heritage. When the Union goes, then go liberty and power to preserve the land and its inhabitants from foreign aggression, and our country becomes an easy prey to the strong powers, as Africa and Asia are today. From this calamity Lincoln preserved the United States and the United States preserved the rest of the Western Hemisphere by the Monroe Doctrine.

Thanksgiving Day has a reason. Not only the secession did Lincoln combat, but, as he says, once granted the right of secession, then the seceding parts had to concede the right of secession within their own territories, and those would reduce the country to be the prey of those imperial powers which today extend their arms over the globe, merely to exploit the soil and reduce the natives to servitude.

When thanking God for the crops and industries, let it not be forgotten that the martyrs who laid down their lives for the Union, did more than preserve the Union. They preserved all those inheritances of the heroes, who builded none too strongly, until the structure was cemented with the blood of a hundred battlefields during the Civil War.

-Henry Borgmann, C.SS.R.

And as Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story.

Enjoy the holiday, dear readers.


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