A brief journey through the holiday’s lengthy legal history.
Though farmers have celebrated their bounties during the autumn harvest for generations, President George Washington first called for a national day of thanks, encouraging the new republic to “to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God” in 1789. While earlier American leaders proclaimed holidays to express appreciation for military victories, President Washington was the first to devote a holiday to the appreciation of health, security, and material blessings.
President Abraham Lincoln was the first to declare Thanksgiving a unified national holiday through a proclamation issued during the Civil War, encouraging Americans to observe an annual “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” While communities celebrated independently prior to the announcement, the Thanksgiving Proclamation identified Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November each year by all Americans.
Some accounts attribute the Thanksgiving Proclamation to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, the prominent editor of a popular women’s magazine at the time who wrote a series of letters to the President over several decades urging the declaration of a national day of thanks.
Americans continued to commemorate Thanksgiving as prescribed by President Lincoln until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation aimed at permanently rescheduling the holiday to the second to last Thursday of November each year. The President’s action was motivated by concerns that, as Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the last day of November in 1939, such a late observance would curtail holiday shopping and hamper the economic recovery.
Many states, however, declined to follow the President’s invitation to observe Thanksgiving on an earlier date. As a result, for two years following President Roosevelt’s proclamation, the American people celebrated Thanksgiving on two separate dates!
Finally, to resolve this controversy, the House passed a joint resolution declaring Thanksgiving to be commemorated annually on President Lincoln’s selected date—the last Thursday of November. The Senate, concerned about years in which November contained five Thursdays—amended the proposal. Ultimately, in 1941 both houses of Congress signed onto the Senate’s version and determined that Thanksgiving shall be held on the fourth November of each month—the day on which we continue to observe the holiday today.