The first Thanksgiving Day celebrated under the new Constitution took place on November 26, 1789, the first year of George Washington’s presidency. At the encouragement of the House of Representatives, President Washington proclaimed a day to be devoted to “public thanksgiving and prayer” and sent money to supply debtors in prison with provisions, thus beginning the Thanksgiving Day tradition of charity. Washington’s proclamation, however, did not result in a new holiday: John Adams, Washington’s successor, recommended a “National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer,” rather than a thanksgiving day, while Thomas Jefferson opposed the proclamation of both thanksgiving and fast days as counter to the separation of church and state.
Although many states, particularly in New England, continued to have annual observances of thanksgiving, there wasn’t another national Thanksgiving Day until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed one in 1863 to celebrate the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg — an act we owe, in part, to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. The editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book and famous author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale had devoted an entire chapter to the importance of Thanksgiving traditions in her 1827 novel, Northwood. She campaigned to make the day a national holiday, year after year sending letters to governors, congressmen, senators, and to the White House, addressing notes to at least six different presidents.
By 1855, 14 states recognized the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, with two others celebrating the holiday on the third Thursday. Territories such as California and Oregon even proclaimed the holiday before being recognized as states. In September 1863, Hale published an editorial once again urging President Lincoln to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day. On October 3 — the same date on which Washington had offered his Thanksgiving Proclamation — Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving Day would be observed on the last Thursday in November. Writing in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln urged Americans to remember the “gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy” and to “fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it.”