The Real History of Thanksgiving


Early thanksgiving celebrations in America can be traced to the 17th century. The harvest feast at the Plymouth plantation in 1621 celebrated by pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag Indians who taught the settlers to grow corn and catch eel is ingrained in the popular imagination. The national Thanksgiving celebration observed on the fourth Thursday of November  is a uniquely American national holiday that has a storied, exceptional history. Prager University recently featured a video presentation by Melanie Kirkpatrick, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute – Lincoln and Thanksgiving: The Origin of an American Holiday.

Poet, essayist, and magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879), was the daughter of a revolutionary war officer. She believed a national day of thanksgiving would help bind the country closer together. She lobbied for twenty years beginning in 1843 for the enactment of the third national holiday. At the time there were only two national holidays, George Washington’s birthday and the July 4th Independence Day. With the menacing specter of a civil war looming large over the young nation, she passionately persisted in convincing President Abraham Lincoln through her writings and public appeals to declare a new national day of Thanksgiving. In 1863 during the middle of the Civil War, she got her wish when President Lincoln signed the proclamation which has endured to our day.  Watch the enlightening video presentation.

A few years ago, I had the occasion to take the Pikes Peak COG Railway from Manitou Springs, Colorado up to the 14,115 foot summit of Pikes Peak. At the summit the “America the Beautiful” monument is placed prominently for visitors to learn that the author, Katharine Lee Bates, an American writer and poet, inspired by her visit to the peak wrote the poem, originally titled “Pikes Peak” which became the lyrics of the iconic anthem, “America the Beautiful”, first published in 1895. The music was composed by organist Samuel Ward titled “Materna”.

We have much to be thankful for as Americans. We enjoy breathless beauty around us that abound all over our 50 states, our exceptional and unique democratic republic’s guiding constitutional principles protect our people’s religious freedom, individual liberties, and encourages and rewards individual initiative and hard work. We are a generous people who have sacrificed our blood and treasure that other nations may enjoy the same freedoms. Remember all the fallen Americans buried in overseas cemeteries.

But prophetic voices from the past have also warned us that our freedoms in America are fragile, earned at a great price. Founding Father and second President, John Adams, wrote:

“Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”

The renowned Austrian-British economist and philosopher, Frederich Hayek, warned democracies in his classic, The Road to Serfdom, first published during the WWII years “of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.” He argued during the time that raging beasts of radical nationalism and fascism are ravenous, always ready to pounce, that democracies can devolve into oppressive societies, beguiled by tyrannical dictators, ending with the serfdom of the gullible and naive individual.

In Katharine Bates’ poem and later iconic anthem, she celebrated God’s shedding His grace on America and our people crowning our “good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea” but implored the Almighty to “mend … ev’ry flaw, to confirm “thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law”.

Are we Americans crowning our good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea? Are we mending our every flaw, confirming our souls in self-control and liberty in law?

May this Thanksgiving and Christmas bind the deep divide that separates our American people. Let us celebrate this Thanksgiving with “one heart and one voice“.