"November Thanksgiving Thursday":

Origins of Fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day



    Why is Thanksgiving Day officially observed on the fourth Thursday of November?

    Though the United States' thanksgiving celebration on the fourth Thursday of November began with the United States Congressional declaration of 1941 establishing that weekday as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving Day, earlier United States Presidential Proclamations called for the last Thursday of November to be celebrated as Thanksgiving. Those Presidential Proclamations, in turn, built upon an American Colonial tradition--predating the formation of the United States-- establishing a Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. And the Thanksgiving Day Proclamations issued by American Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757) played an important role in the origin of "November Thanksgiving Thursday."

    This is a little-known history not mentioned by other articles, which, after discussing the "first" Thanksgiving, typically begin their list of Thanksgiving Day proclamations with the one issued in 1789 by United States President George Washington naming November 26 as Thanksgiving Day. Next mentioned is often United States President Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of 1863, which declared that the last Thursday of November should be celebrated as a day of thanksgiving. Succeeding U. S. Presidents followed Lincoln's lead, and this began the annual practice of U. S. Presidential proclamations calling on the people to celebrate Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of November. Then, in 1941, the United States Congress declared that in the years thereafter, the national legal holiday of Thanksgiving Day would be on November's fourth Thursday.

    The Colonial tradition most often discussed is that of the "First Thanksgiving" in New England celebrated by the settlers of the Plymouth Colony (commonly considered to be in Fall 1621). According to some researchers, Plymouth's first documented Thanksgiving Day was the day of thanksgiving observed in 1623--but this thanksgiving celebration was in Summer (probably July). Some researchers consider the "first" Thanksgiving proclamation to be the one issued by the Charlestown, Massachusetts council for a day of thanksgiving in 1676--but again, a summer day was selected: June 29.

    In 1721, Governor Gurdon Saltonstall of the Connecticut Colony (formerly, the home colony of Governor Jonathan Belcher's mother Sarah Gilbert Belcher) issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation naming November 8 as a thanksgiving day--but that day was a Wednesday.  Some descriptions of Thanksgiving briefly touch upon American Colonial history when they discuss Plymouth Governor William Bradford's Thanksgiving Days in December 1621 and Summer 1623 and then move on to U. S. President George Washington's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation naming November 26, 1789.

    Less well known is that celebration of Thanksgiving in November didn't begin with George Washington. There were earlier November Thanksgiving Day proclamations issued by Colonial governors in the American colonies. And among the most important were those issued by Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher. 

    Perhaps U. S. President George Washington got his November 26 date by following the lead of someone else. Let's follow the trail backward to reconstruct the origins of "November Thanksgiving Thursday"....

    About seven years prior to Washington's 1789 proclamation, the United States Continental Congress' Thanksgiving Proclamation urged the newly-formed American states to observe Thursday, November 28, 1782 as a Thanksgiving Day. The Congress' Proclamation was signed by the President of the Continental Congress, John Hanson (1721-1783), and the Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson (1729-1824), the co-designer of the Great Seal of the United States and a man who might have had a link to American Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher. (For a discussion of how Governor Belcher's coat of arms apparently became the template for the Great Seal of the United States and Thomson's role in this, see The Great Seal of the United States and the Belcher Coat of Arms.)

Interestingly, Hanson and Thomson were in power at the time the Great Seal of the United States (especially its Coat of Arms portion) was designed on June 19, 1782 (the final design seems to have been come up with overnight under the supervision of Charles Thomson) and adopted by the Continental Congress (of which Hanson was the President and Thomson was the Secretary) on June 20, 1782. (The Congress had turned the work of finishing the Great Seal (U. S. Coat of Arms) over to Secretary Thomson on June 13, who, as the Great Seal and Belcher Coat of Arms article explains, probably was linked to Governor Belcher through Belcher's acquaintance with Benjamin Franklin (member of the first committee to design the U. S. Seal). Since Governor Belcher also had a link to Elias Boudinot (member of the third (final) committee to design the U. S. Seal--the committee that turned the work of designing it over to Barton, who was later supervised by Secretary Thomson), the design of the Coat of Arms of the United States (displayed on the breast of the eagle as part of the Great Seal of the United States) had ties to Governor Belcher from the beginning to the end of the seal-designing process. (For further information, read the article The Great Seal of the United States and the Belcher Coat of Arms.)

    (Interestingly, on September 16, 1782, President of Continental Congress Hanson was the first to use the new Great Seal of the United States, which had been entrusted to the custody of Secretary Thomson. In 1789, Thomson personally delivered the Seal to the new President of the United States, George Washington, when Thomson resigned his post as the only Secretary of the Continental Congress (1774-1789)).

    There is another interesting connection associated with a Thanksgiving Proclamation issued in 1774 (the year Thomson became Secretary of the Continental Congress) at the dawn of the American Revolution (though this proclamation, issued by a legislature instead of a governor, called for a Thursday in December). The Massachusetts Provincial Congress proclaimed December 15, 1774, to be a Day of Public Thanksgiving throughout Massachusetts. This resolution was written by a committee of three headed by Governor Belcher's friend, John Winthrop (1714-1779), a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard College. (It was Governor Belcher who originally recommended John Winthrop to Benjamin Franklin and that's how Franklin and Winthrop struck up their acquaintance. Professor Winthrop's father, Judge Adam Winthrop, was one of Governor Belcher's special friends.) The signer of the Proclamation was the President of the Provincial Congress, John Hancock, a good friend of William Cooper's son, famed Revolutionary minister Samuel Cooper (1725-1783), who ghost-wrote some of Hancock's articles for the press. (Cooper also was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, two of the three members of the first committee for designing the Great Seal of the United States.) The two Coopers were also Governor Belcher's friends; not only did the governor commend the ability of Samuel Cooper, but also Governor Belcher specifically selected William Cooper to write and deliver a significant election day sermon in 1740 that set the stage for the U. S. Constitution's First Amendment religion clauses.)

    Though the Winthrop Proclamation of 1774 specified Thursday as Thanksgiving Day, it named a day in December. Hanson and Thomson's Proclamation of 1782 specified Thursday, November 28, and Washington's Proclamation of 1789 specified Thursday, November 26.     

    Maybe Hanson-Thomson and Washington were inspired by the November Thursday Thanksgiving dates established in 1730 and 1749 by Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher.

Could the fact that Washington's date of November 26 was a Thursday have had anything to do with Thursday being later selected as a Thanksgiving date by President Abraham Lincoln (one of our greatest U. S. Presidents)? (Though in the same year Washington issued his Thanksgiving proclamation, a November Thursday was selected as a Thanksgiving date by the Episcopal Church, this Thursday was the first Thursday in November. In contrast, President Lincoln selected the last Thursday in November--a date closer to Governor Belcher's November 23, 1749; Hanson-Thomson's November 28, 1782, and President Washington's November 26, 1789 dates.)

Governor Belcher's first Thanksgiving proclamation that established a Thursday in November as the Thanksgiving Day date was his Proclamation for Day of Thanksgiving printed in the November 2, 1730 issue of The New England Weekly Journal, clearly specifying that "THURSDAY the TWELFTH of NOVEMBER next" was to be "a day of Public THANKSGIVING throughout this Province." This Thanksgiving Proclamation specifically mentioned offering up prayer to God for "granting us a plentiful HARVEST", among other enumerated blessings. Thus, Thursday, November 12, 1730 was Governor Jonathan Belcher's First Thanksgiving Proclamation. It specifically mentioned a Thursday in November.

The 1730 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation was issued at the beginning of Jonathan Belcher's governorship of the colonies of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which lasted from 1730 to 1741. As previously mentioned, Governor Belcher issued at least another Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in 1749, when he was governor of the colony of New Jersey. (Though he was officially chosen to be governor of New Jersey in 1746, he was on a trip to England at the time, and he didn't get to land on American shores again until 1747--hence the confusion that sometimes occurs about the beginning date of his New Jersey governorship. Since he was actually commissioned in 1746, however, the proper official beginning date for his New Jersey governorship is 1746. He died Governor of New Jersey in 1757.)

    Governor Belcher's 1749 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation established Thursday, November 23 as Thanksgiving Day--just five days shy of Hanson-Thomson's Thursday, November 28 and three days shy of President George Washington's Thursday, November 26 Thanksgiving dates in 1782 and 1789, respectively. Could Hanson-Thomson and Washington have been following Governor Belcher's lead?

Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), member of the final (third) committee to design the Great Seal of the United States, lived across the street from the Governor Belcher Mansion in Elizabethtown, New Jersey.  Elias' brother, Elisha, married Catherine ("Kate") Smith, the daughter of Governor Belcher's good friend William Peartree Smith (the wedding was held in the Governor Belcher Mansion).  It was Elias Boudinot who "proposed a resolution asking President George Washington to issue a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation" (quoting from the account of the Proclamation's history given by United States Supreme Court Justice (later Chief Justice) William Rehnquist in his dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)). Washington's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1789 mirrored Governor Belcher's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1749.

    Once again, Elias Boudinot was involved. He was a member of the committee that turned the design of the Great Seal of the United States over to William Barton (which in turn allowed Hanson to turn it over to Thomson supervising Barton), it was Hanson and Thomson who signed the Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1782, and it was Boudinot who specifically came up with the idea for a resolution requesting George Washington to issue his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.

    As with the Great Seal of the United States, there were links to Governor Belcher from beginning to end of the finalization of the "November Thanksgiving Thursday" date.

    Take a few moments to compare the text of Governor Belcher's 1749 Thanksgiving Proclamation and the text of Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation (reproduced as quoted in part in Rehnquist's dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985).)

    To read Governor Belcher's 1730 "Thursday in November" Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, click here.

    A draft text (with spelling modernized) of Governor Belcher's 1749 "Thursday in November" Thanksgiving Day Proclamation is given below:

    By His Excellency Jonathan Belcher Esqr. Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over His Majesty's Province of New Jersey and Territories thereon depending in America, Chancellor and Vice Admiral in the same & etc.

    A Proclamation for a public Thanksgiving taking into consideration the manifold blessings of Heaven to a sinful and unworthy people, in particular that it hath pleased Almighty God in much mercy to preserve the life of our most Gracious King and the rest of the Royal family, and to bless His Majesty's Councils and arms, by restoring a general peace among all the nations engaged in the late war. To continue our invaluable privileges both civil and sacred and that it hath pleased a Gracious God in many respects to smile on this Province, and not to punish us as our iniquities have deserved, to favor us with such a plentiful supply of rain after a sore distressing drought, and to grant the smiles of Providence upon the former and latter harvest, filling our hearts with food and gladness; which unmerited instances of the Divine Goodness call aloud for our public, humble and most grateful acknowledgments to the God of all our mercies.

    I have therefore thought fit with the advice of His Majesty's Council to appoint and I do hereby appoint Thursday the twenty third Day of November next to be religiously observed as a Day of Public thanksgiving and praise to the great name of God our most gracious and bountiful benefactor, hereby exhorting both ministers and people to join in a public and serious manner in offering up their devout and thankful acknowledgments to the God of all our mercies and at same time to offer up their humble and hearty supplications at the Throne of Grace for the advancement of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ in the world and that his blessed Gospel may run and be glorified among all nations and in particular among the Original Natives of this land and for all in authority over us, particularly that the best of blessings may descend on our Gracious Sovereign King George, the Prince and Princess of Wales, The Duke, the Princesses the Royal Issue, and on every branch of this illustrious family that the Protestant Succession may abide before God forever, that this Province may ever be remembered of God for good, that He would mercifully heal our divisions, restore peace and tranquility, humble us for our sins, prevent the judgments we deserve, that He would incline us to lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty under the government placed over us, that He would graciously prevent the growth of sin and impiety, revive pure and undefiled religion and make us a people zealous of good works, and all servile labor is hereby strictly forbidden on said day.

    Given under my hand this fourteenth day of October Anno Dom 1749.

                                                                    J. BELCHER

    By His Excellency's Command.

        CHARLES READ Secretary.

            God save the King


President George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 (as quoted in Wallace v. Jaffree, 105 S.Ct. 2479, 2513 (1985) (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting):

    "Now, therefore, 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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

    "And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."

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