Happy Thanksgiving from the Jack Miller Center!

One of the Family, Frederick George Cotman

Happy Thanksgiving from the JMC!


Thanksgiving, one of our country’s oldest holidays, has roots in both the Native American and European traditions. The Wampanoags and other Native American tribes traditionally held ceremonies of thanksgiving for successful harvests and instances of good fortune. Long before coming to North America, Europeans too gave thanks for good harvests with feasting and games. Today’s American holiday, though very different from ceremonies of the 1600s, still retains elements of both traditions. The most famous Thanksgiving – the Plymouth Thanksgiving – was not, in actuality, the “first” thanksgiving. In addition to the thanksgiving ceremonies of indigenous peoples, historical documentation shows that settlers’ thanksgiving celebrations had previously taken place in the regions that would become Maine, Virginia, Texas, and Florida. That said, the Plymouth thanksgiving of 1621 came to be the best-known of these early feasts.

In the Puritan tradition, a thanksgiving day served as a kind of second Sabbath to thank God for His Providence. Thanks to these religious connotations, the New England colonies were proclaiming regular autumnal thanksgivings by the mid-1600s. The first national thanksgiving wasn’t proclaimed until 1777. Issued by the young Continental Congress during the middle of the Revolution, it was a solemn day meant to recognize the recent American victory at Saratoga. In the same vein, another Thanksgiving was proclaimed on Thursday, November 26, 1789 to celebrate the new constitution.

Thanksgiving did not catch on as a nationwide holiday until the 1860s during the Civil War. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, was inspired by firsthand accounts of the Plymouth Thanksgiving and began to promote a widespread holiday in her magazine. She also petitioned several U.S. presidents over the course of 15 years, finally meeting with success when President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving in 1863. Prior to this point and following the founding era, Thanksgiving was celebrated on a local basis, most often in New England.

Following Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving became an established tradition, though not a fixed annual event. U.S. presidents opted to proclaim Thanksgiving each year – the last Thursday of November became customary. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to change the day to the second-to-last Thursday in 1939, but backlash prompted Congress to permanently establish an annual Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. In 2009, Native Americans were recognized for their important contributions to the United States when President Barack Obama designated the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day.

In recognition of  Thanksgiving Day, we have gathered together historical resources on early American life, the Thanksgiving tradition, and the Native American heritage. As Americans, we are participating in a long-standing tradition that precedes even the Founding. While most of us observe the holiday as a time to be thankful for food, family, and friends, previous generations used Thanksgiving not only to celebrate successful harvests, but to honor battles won or the birth of the U.S. Constitution.


Thanksgiving Proclamation on Occasion of the New Constitution

[New York, 3 October 1789]

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

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 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 which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, 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 hath 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 shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease 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.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.





Primary Accounts of the First Thanksgiving


Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William HalsallOf Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford

“…They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports…”

Read all of Bradford’s account of Plymouth >>



Plimoth Plantation, MAMourt’s Relation, Edward Winslow

“…our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty…”

Read all of Mourt’s Relation >>



Commentary and articles from JMC fellows:


Thanksgiving and Gratitude


Cucurbita, George ChernilevskyJames Ceaser, No Thanks to Gratitude.” (Policy Review, December 1, 2011)

Wilfred McClay, “Pilgrims Giving Thanks: Cherishing the America We Were Not Made For.” (Touchstone 18.9, November 2005)




Colonial Life, the Puritans, and the New England Colonies


Joseph Adelman, Bradford, William (1722–91).” (The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment 1, Bloomsbury, 2015)

The Turn Around Religion in AmericaJonathan Barth, A Peculiar Stampe of Our Owne’: The Massachusetts Mint and the Battle over Sovereignty, 1652-1691.” (The New England Quarterly 87.3, 2014)

Matthew Crow, British North America to the Late Nineteenth Century.” (Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, Routledge, 2016)

Nan Goodman, Banished: Common Law and the Rhetoric of Social Exclusion in Early New England. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

Nan Goodman, Banishment, Jurisdiction, and Identity in Seventeenth-Century New England: The Case of Roger Williams.” (Early American Studies 7.1, 2009)

Nan Goodman, “‘I Hear No Things Laid to My Charge’: Aurality in Anne Hutchinson’s Trial Transcript.” (Critical Analysis of Law 2.2, 2015)

Experiencing Empire (Patrick Griffin, ed.)Nan Goodman, The Law of the Literary Archive: The Case of the Early American Period.” (English Language Notes, Special Issue: The Specter of the Archive 45.1, Spring/Summer 2007)

Nan Goodman, Robert Keayne’s Nails, or a Mercantilist’s Version of Christian Charity.” (The Turn Around Religion in America: Literature, Culture, and the Work of Sacvan Bercovitch, Ashgate, 2011)

Eliga Gould, The Christianizing of British America.” (Missions and Empire, Oxford University Press, 2005)

Eliga Gould, Entangled Atlantic Histories: A Response from the Anglo-American Periphery.” (American Historical Review 112.5, December 2007)

Eliga Gould, Lines of Plunder or Crucible of Modernity? Toward a Legal History of the English-Speaking Atlantic, 1660-1825.” (Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges, University of Hawai’i Press, 2007)

Eliga Gould, The Question of Home Rule.” (William and Mary Quarterly 64.2, April 2007)

Heavenly MerchandizeEliga Gould, A World Transformed? Mapping the Legal Geography of the English-Speaking Atlantic World, 1660-1825.” (Vienna Journal of Modern History 3.2, 2003)

Patrick Griffin, Experiencing Empire: Power, People, and Revolution in Early America. (University of Virginia Press, 2017)

James Hrdlicka, The Attachment of the People’: The Massachusetts Charter, the French and Indian War, and the Coming of the American Revolution.” (The New England Quarterly 89.3, 2016)

Michele Navakas, Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)

Benjamin Park, Seeking Early America’s Identities in the Atlantic World.” (49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of American Studies 33.2, Autumn 2014)

Mark Valeri, The Economic Thought of Jonathan Edwards.” (Church History 60.1, March 1991)

Law & Providence in Joseph Bellamy's New EnglandMark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Mark Valeri, Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy’s New England: The Origins of the New Divinity in Revolutionary America. (Oxford University Press, 1994)

Mark Valeri, Providence in the Life of John Hull: Puritanism and Commerce in Massachusetts Bay, 1650-1680.” (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 118, 2008)

Mark Valeri, Religious Discipline and the Market: Puritans and the Issue of Usury.” (William and Mary Quarterly 54.4, October 1997)

Mark Valeri (editor), The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 17: Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733. (Yale University Press, 1999)


The Native American Heritage


Desha Girod, Indigenous Origins of Colonial Institutions.” (Quarterly Journal of Political Science 9.3, 2014)

Native ActsNan Goodman, American Indian Languages and the Law of Property in Colonial America.” (Law, Culture, and the Humanities 5.1, 2009)

Nan Goodman, “The Deer Island Indians and Common Law Performance.” (Native Acts: Indian Performance, 1603-1832, University of Nebraska Press, 2011)

Nan Goodman, ‘Money Answers All Things’: Rethinking Economic and Cultural Exchange in the Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson (American Literary History 22.1, 2010)

Burke Hendrix, Authenticity and Cultural Rights.” (Journal of Moral Philosophy 5.2, 2008)

Burke Hendrix, Context, Equality, and Aboriginal Compensation Claims.” (Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 50.4, 2011)

Burke Hendrix, Memory in Native American Land Claims.” (Political Theory 33.6, 2005)

Ownership, Authority, and Self-DeterminationBurke Hendrix, Moral Minimalism in American Indian Land Claims.” (American Indian Quarterly 29.3/4, Summer/Fall 2005)

Burke Hendrix, Ownership, Authority, and Self-Determination: Moral Principles and Indigenous Rights Claims. (Penn State University Press, 2008)

Burke Hendrix, Political Authority and Indigenous Sovereignty.” (The Good Society 19.2, 2010)

Burke Hendrix, The Political Dangers of Western Philosophical Approaches.” (The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous Peoples’ Politics, Oxford University Press, 2013)

James Hill, ‘Bring Them What they Lack’: Spanish-Creek Exchange and Alliance-Making in a Maritime Borderland, 1763-1784.” (Early American Studies 12.1, Winter 2014)

James Hill (editor), The Indian Frontier in British East Florida: Letters to Governor James Grant from Soldiers and Indian Traders at Fort St. Mark’s of Apalache, 1763-1784.” (Florida History Online, 2010)

Encyclopedia of United States Indian Policy and LawJames Hill, New Systems, Established Traditions: Governor James Grant’s Indian Policy, 1760-1771.” (Florida Historical Quarterly 93.2, Fall 2014)

Jeffrey Pasley, Midget on Horseback: American Indians and the History of the American State.” (Common-Place 9.1, October 2008)

Jeffrey Pasley, Native Americans.” (Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia, ABC-Clio, 2003)

Patrick Spero, Defiance in the Face of Devastation: The Introduction of Smallpox and the Transformation of Indigenous Societies.” (World History: The Modern Era, 2012)

Patrick Spero, Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

Patrick Spero, Sir William Johnson.” (The Encyclopedia of United States Indian Policy and Law, Congressional Quarterly Press, 2008)

Joey Torres, The Voting Rights Act’s Pre-Clearance Provisions: The Experience of Native Americans in South Dakota. (American Indian Culture and Research Journal 41.1, 2017)


*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Thanksgiving, colonial America, the Native American heritage or their histories and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at academics@gojmc.org



More resources for Thanksgiving:


The First Thanksgiving, Jennie BrownscombeWhat So Proudly We Hail

The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook,“The Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that considers the meaning of Thanksgiving Day, with selections by American authors such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jack London, Langston Hughes, Sarah Orne Jewett and O. Henry, to name just a few.

Thanksgiving is a venerable and much beloved American holiday. But what do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? In this ebook, we begin by exploring the origins and traditions of the Thanksgiving holiday, and then consider our private and public blessings. The ebook also features two in-depth discussion guides, one for George Washington’ s Thanksgiving Proclamation and one for O. Henry’s classic short story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.” Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.

Read the ebook here >>



A Proclamation of Thanksgiving from Abraham Lincoln

Although we most often associate Lincoln’s presidency with the Civil War, it was also the time in which Thanksgiving became an official national holiday. This proclamation, written by Secretary of State William Seward in 1863, designates the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. A reflection of the times, the proclamation also asks that citizens “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, tranquility and Union.”

Read the 1863 proclamation at Abraham Lincoln Online >>



Sarah Josepha Hale, 1850Thanksgiving at the Pilgrim Hall Museum

The Pilgrim Hall Museum offers a wide variety of online resources on Thanksgiving. Highlights of the collection include an entire catalog of Thanksgiving proclamations, from 1723-2019, and a biography of Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”

Visit the Pilgrim Hall Museum online >>






Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933The Year We Had Two Thanksgivings

“On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt carved the turkey at the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at Warm Springs, Georgia and wished all Americans across the country a Happy Thanksgiving… Unfortunately, his greeting went unanswered in some states: many Americans were not observing Thanksgiving on the same day as the President. Instead, they were waiting to carve their turkeys on the following Thursday.” – Visit the FDR Presidential Library to find out why Americans were celebrating a national holiday on two different days.

Read about Thanksgiving(s) 1939 >>



Thanksgiving, 1918Thanksgiving at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress offers a Thanksgiving teacher’s guide with images, documents, and stories that demonstrate the holiday’s transcendence of religion and culture in the United States.



Click here to view images and documents and click here to read holiday stories >>


*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Thanksgiving, colonial America, the Native American heritage or their histories and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at academics@gojmc.org



Facebook iconTwitter iconFollow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates about lectures, publications, podcasts, and events related to American political thought, United States history, and the Western tradition!



Want to help the Jack Miller Center transform higher education? Donate today.