The Pilgrims fled England because of religious persecution and lived in Leiden, Holland, from 1609 to 1620. Each October, Leiden, Holland, celebrated an annual day of thanksgiving for the ending of the bloody pillaging committed by Spain’s “Iron Duke” during the Spanish Furies of 1572-1589.
In 1620, the Pilgrims left Holland for England, then intended to sail to Jamestown, but got blown off course to Massachusetts. Half of the Pilgrims died the first winter, but the next year, with the help of Squanto, the Pilgrims had an abundant harvest in 1621. Squanto also put the Pilgrims on good terms with the Wampanoag tribe.
Pilgrim Governor William Bradford described the autumn of 1621: “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
Ben Franklin wrote of the first Thanksgiving (“The Compleated Autobiography” by Benjamin Franklin, editors Mark & Jo Ann Skousen, Regnery, 2006, pp. 331-333): “There is a tradition that in the planting of New England, the first settlers met with many difficulties and hardships, as is generally the case when a civiliz’d people attempt to establish themselves in a wilderness country. Being so piously dispos’d, they sought relief from heaven by laying their wants and distresses before the Lord in frequent set days of fasting and prayer. Constant meditation and discourse on these subjects kept their minds gloomy and discontented, and like the children of Israel there were many dispos’d to return to the Egypt which persecution had induc’d them to abandon. …”
Ben Franklin continued: “At length, when it was proposed in the Assembly to proclaim another fast, a farmer of plain sense rose and remark’d that the inconveniences they suffer’d, and concerning which they had so often weary’d heaven with their complaints, were not so great as they might have expected, and were diminishing every day as the colony strengthen’d; that the earth began to reward their labour and furnish liberally for their subsistence; that their seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate healthy, and above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious. He therefore thought that reflecting and conversing on these subjects would be more comfortable and lead more to make them contented with their situation; and that it would be more becoming the gratitude they ow’d to the divine being, if instead of a fast they should proclaim a thanksgiving. His advice was taken, and from that day to this, they have in every year observ’d circumstances of public felicity sufficient to furnish employment for a Thanksgiving Day, which is therefore constantly ordered and religiously observed.”
After the Declaration of Independence, the first national day of Thanksgiving was declared Nov. 1, 1777, by the Continental Congress following the victory of the Battle of Saratoga: “The grateful feeling of their hearts… join the penitent confession of their manifold sins. … that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance … and … under the providence of Almighty God … secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, independence and peace.”
After John Paul Jones, commanding the Bonhomme Richard, captured the British ship HMS Serapis, the Continental Congress declared a day of Thanksgiving, which Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson also chose to proclaim for Virginia, Nov. 11, 1779: “Congress … hath thought proper … to recommend to the several States … a day of public and solemn Thanksgiving to Almighty God, for his mercies, and of Prayer, for the continuance of his favour. … That He would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; That He would grant to His church, the plentiful effusions of Divine Grace, and pour out His Holy Spirit on all Ministers of the Gospel; That He would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth. … I do therefore … issue this proclamation … appointing … a day of public and solemn Thanksgiving and Prayer to Almighty God. … Given under by hand … this 11th day of November, in the year of our Lord, 1779 … Thomas Jefferson.”
After traitor Benedict Arnold’s plot to betray West Point was thwarted, the Continental Congress proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, Oct. 18, 1780: “In the late remarkable interposition of His watchful providence, in the rescuing the person of our Commander-in-Chief and the army from imminent dangers, at the moment when treason was ripened for execution. … it is therefore recommended … a Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer … to confess our unworthiness … and to offer fervent supplications to the God of all grace … to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth.”
After British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Congress proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, Oct. 11, 1782: “It being the indispensable duty of all nations … to offer up their supplications to Almighty God … the United States in Congress assembled … do hereby recommend it to the inhabitants of these states in general, to observe … the last Thursday … of November next, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving to God for all his mercies.”
After the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, Congress recommended that the states declare a day of Thanksgiving. Massachusetts Governor John Hancock, the former president of the Continental Congress, proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, Nov. 8, 1783: “The Citizens of these United States have every Reason for Praise and Gratitude to the God of their salvation. … I do … appoint … the 11th day of December next (the day recommended by the Congress to all the states) to be religiously observed as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, that all the people may then assemble to celebrate … that he hath been pleased to continue to us the Light of the Blessed Gospel. … That we also offer up fervent supplications … to cause pure Religion and Virtue to flourish … and to fill the world with His glory.”
After the U.S. Congress passed the First Amendment, it requested President George Washington issue a National Day of Thanksgiving, which he did, Oct. 3, 1789:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor – and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness;’ Now, therefore, I do recommend … Thursday, the 26th day of November … to be devoted by the People of these United 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. … That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble Thanks … for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government. … particularly the national one now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed … to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.”
A Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania almost caused the new American Republic to fall into chaos. When is was peacefully resolved, President George Washington proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving, Sept. 25, 1794: “Resolved, in perfect reliance on that gracious Providence which so signally displays its goodness towards this country to reduce the refractory to a due subordination to the law. … To call to mind that, as the people of the United States have been permitted, under Divine favor, in perfect freedom, after solemn deliberation, and in an enlightened age, to elect their own government, so will their gratitude for this inestimable blessing be best distinguished by firm exertions to maintain the Constitution and the laws.”
On Jan. 1, 1795, President George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving: “When we review the calamities, which afflict so many other nations … the great degree of internal tranquility we have enjoyed – the recent confirmation of that tranquility by the suppression of an insurrection which so wantonly threatened it – the happy course of public affairs in general – the unexampled prosperity of all classes of our citizens; are circumstances which peculiarly mark our situation with indications of the Divine beneficence towards us. In such a state of things it is, in an especial manner, our duty as people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God and to implore Him to continue and confirm the blessings we experience…
“I, George Washington, President of the United States, do recommend to all religious societies and denominations, and to all persons whomsoever, within the United States, to set apart … a Day of public Thanksgiving and Prayer: and on that day to meet together and render their sincere and hearty thanks to the great Ruler of Nations.”
After the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, President James Madison proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, March 4, 1815: “The Senate and House of Representatives … signified their desire that a day may…be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a Day of Thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgments to Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace. No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind Providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected … them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. … In the arduous struggle … they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition. … He … enabled them to assert their national rights and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies.
“And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land … I now recommend … a Day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of Thanksgiving and of their songs of praise. Given … in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifteen … James Madison.”
Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first “annual” national day of Thanksgiving, Washington, D.C., Oct. 3, 1863: “In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend… they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
“In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth. By the President: Abraham Lincoln William H. Seward, Secretary of State.”