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How U.S. Presidents Got Thanksgiving Together

Alexandra N. Martirossian
Malone V. Hill, III
Vincent Valentine, MD

University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Every November in the United States, people all over the country take a break from their busy routines to celebrate a holiday laced with tradition known as Thanksgiving. On the fourth Thursday of the month, family and friends from near and far will gather together for a grand feast with a menu classically composed of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie. From a romanticized perspective, Thanksgiving is a time to cherish time with loved ones and to reflect on all of life's blessings. However, in modern times, the concept of Thanksgiving has expanded beyond traditional values and has become very much commercialized. For example, months before the actual holiday, culinary retailers will begin advertising roasters, pumpkin-shaped soup bowls, turkey-ornamented platters, and other Thanksgiving-themed kitchenware. On the day after Thanksgiving, infamously known as Black Friday, die-hard consumers eager to get a head start on their Christmas shopping will lurk outside retailers' doors for hours, and when opening time finally arrives, will stampede in like cattle to take advantage of the limited time and highly reduced prices. And for those who are especially preoccupied with fitness, runs known as Turkey Trots will enable participants to burn some extra calories prior to the day's feast. With all of these "traditions" dominating the modern American culture, it can be all too easy to forget the historical basis of how this holiday came to be.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" and made history by being the first person to successfully sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the Americas [1]. Columbus's journey instigated a race among European nations to establish colonies in the Americas with the hopes of finding gold and other riches that could generate wealth for the mother country. This race was dominated by Spain for most of the 1500s, but England was an eager contender. In 1607, the Jamestown colony in Virginia became the first permanent English settlement in North America. On December 4, 1609, a group of 38 English settlers arrived and settled a land grant along the James River that came to be known as the Berkeley Hundred (aka Berkeley Plantation) [2]. The journey across the Atlantic Ocean was long and perilous, so upon their arrival, these settlers observed a prayer of Thanksgiving for their safe passage to the New World [3]. The Berkeley Plantation, the grounds where the first Thanksgiving took place, is a site of historical significance in the United States. This plantation is where Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born and lived. His son William Henry Harrison ("Tippecanoe") was elected the 9th President of the United States, and his great-grandson Benjamin Harrison ("Little Ben") was elected the 23rd President.

This coincidental relationship between United States Presidents and the origins from which Thanksgiving sprang forth is only one of many. The holiday, unique to our country and celebrated by few others, has indeed been contorted and perhaps tainted by commercialization, most notably in 1939 [4]. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, attempting to drag the country out of the depths of the Depression, moved the Thanksgiving holiday from the last Thursday of the month to the fourth Thursday, thereby extending the duration of Christmas shopping season and appeasing such capitalists as Frank Lazarus, Jr. who were lobbying the economic benefits. Many political spectators criticized this decision as an abandonment of the core values behind the meaning of Thanksgiving (a harbinger to the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sequelae of contemporary Thanksgiving). Supporters of Roosevelt, however, pointed toward their President's resourcefulness in times of turmoil, using this uniquely American holiday to re-strengthen America. In fact, historical evidence shows that United States Presidents have long depended on the Thanksgiving holiday during times of national tumult in order to stabilize and unify the country.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with the establishment of Thanksgiving as annual national holiday, but credit is further due to Sarah Josepha Hale, an author and advocator for concordance between the North and the South [5]. She wrote the President and four others predating him, promoting Thanksgiving as an instrument by which to establish national solidarity. Her efforts were realized in 1863 when Lincoln signed legislation which established Thanksgiving as a national holiday (before that of Christmas or Easter). "Giving thanks" and appreciation was symbolically intended to promote the national identity of our young country at a time when we were fractured along geopolitical lines, and many preferred to look past the gruesome consequences of The Civil War. Take a moment to review the ISHLT's dedication to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and what it means to us. ISHLT Links November 2011. Like Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln valued Thanksgiving for its secondary purpose during a period of national strife, recognizing that it was both emblematic and singular to our country.

When the United States was in its infantile beginnings, George Washington proclaimed "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer" in 1789 [6]. The idea was to offer "an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks". This notion, surprisingly, was met with significant resistance from Congress, some members of which thought that a designated day for giving thanks was too forced, or that it overstepped boundaries between church and state. Reluctantly, it was signed into bill, the idea promoted as "a laudable one in and of itself". After all, what ulterior motive can overshadow the good intentions behind demonstrating appreciation towards one's life blessings?

Herein lies the true meaning of Thanksgiving. Sure it has been exploited, some purposes more noble than others, but many of our nation's greatest presidents came to fully appreciate the holiday's symbolism. By recognizing our country's beginnings and being thankful, Thanksgiving allows us to unify, even under less-than-ideal circumstances. This concept has been called "nationalism" by some, but viewed under a less cynical lens, could more appropriately be called harmony. Thanksgiving continues to be taken advantage of in the commercial industry. Black Friday and all that it represents are not exactly flattering representations of the modern United States, but at least we can celebrate these "holidays" together. ■

Disclosure Statement: The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. History.com Staff (2010). Jamestown Colony. History.com, A+E Networks. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/jamestown
  2. History.com Staff (2009). History of Thanksgiving. History.com, A+E Networks. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving
  3. Today in History: December 4. (2010, October 8). American Library of Congress, American Memory. Retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/dec04.html
  4. Kirkpatrick, M. "Happy Thanksgiving: How Roosevelt tried, and failed, to change a national holiday". The Wall Street Journal. 24 November 2009.
  5. Quigley, P. "The Birth of Thanksgiving". The New York Times. 28 November 2013.
  6. Kirkpatrick, M. "Thanksgiving, 1789: George Washington's proclamation was not without controversy". The Wall Street Journal. 20 November 2012.

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