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Thanks for the Memories, ... and the Documentary Records: Thanksgiving and the History of American Holidays

Matthew Dennis

Professor of History and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon

"Twas founded be th' Puritans to give thanks f'r bein presarved fr'm
th' Indyans, an' . . . we keep it to give thanks we are presarved fr'm th' Puritans."

—Finley Peter Dunne, "'Thanksgiving,' Mr. Dooley's Opinions" (1901)

Holidays are like peaks in a nation's topography. Without them, the landscape would be flat and monotonous; with them, we find places that rise above the everyday world and give us lofty views and broader perspectives. America's national holidays are the extraordinary annual events that help define the United States and its people. On such occasions, Americans tell themselves and the world who they are. They commemorate their origins, call attention to their basic values and ideals, celebrate their good fortune and express thanks to those who created, nurtured and protected their nation. All these qualities make Thanksgiving especially promising terrain for American historians, ground that's easy to chart because historical actors have left such prominent signposts—documentary records—of their festivity.

Thanksgiving is America's most cherished holiday. The autumn festival's nearly universal appeal comes peculiarly from its elasticity and ambiguity. Invented in the 17th century, Thanksgiving has been continually reinvented ever since. Though it began as an exclusive tribal rite for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant New Englanders, Thanksgiving has been appropriated generally by Americans of various tribes well beyond the New England Pale. Some might quibble with Mr. Dooley's historical analysis, but he was surely correct in noticing the value—to immigrants and other marginalized Americans—in the creative recycling of this vital American tradition.

The annual calendar of American public holidays offers a succession of teaching opportunities—none more fecund than the historical cornucopia of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving not only recounts history and legend—of the Pilgrims of 1621—but it has a history of its own—a remarkable story of considerable duration and complexity. For scholars and teachers, the holiday can be a barometer of the astonishing transformation of the United States itself. And students can enrich their understanding of nearly every American era through simple excursions into Thanksgivings past—via broadsides, pamphlets, proclamations, sermons and newspaper stories, accessible online through the Archive of Americana.

Like the 4th of July and other special American occasions, Thanksgiving has seen its share of political contention and paradox. Its erection as an annual, national celebration in the mid-19th century, in the midst of the Civil War, had a complex political agenda—including Victorian assimilationism, which Mr. Dooley feared. And Thanksgiving's history, before and since, has been riddled with controversy. Thanksgiving has been a site to construct middle-class sensibility and the object of promotional efforts by America's mercantile elite, who unsentimentally sought profits by hawking groceries, novelty dinnerware and greeting cards. Amid commercial blitzes and cultural wars from the late 19th century to the present, however, Thanksgiving the holiday remained remarkably unpoliticized and uncommercialized.

For a public holiday, Thanksgiving is quite private; for a national holiday, it is distinctively localized and variable. Though inwardly focused, Thanksgiving is also the time when Americans in the largest numbers reach out to the least fortunate in their communities. Americans collectively shape the meaning of the occasion—and the meaning of America itself as a plural nation—and declare their national identity simply by convening privately and eating turkey. A holiday celebrating Pilgrim Patriarchs, the domestic feast is gendered female. Often religious but not particularly sectarian, the Thanksgiving does not exclude non-Christians. Instead, it partakes in the universalism of thanksgiving rituals that cross boundaries of culture, religion, race and ethnicity.

All of these themes and developments and more emerge from a simple electronic tour of the historical record. A keyword search for "Thanksgiving" in Early American Imprints, American Broadsides and Ephemera or America's Historical Newspapers can produce thousands of items; more elaborate pairings of terms will generate hundreds more.

Consider the broadside "By the Governour, Council, and Representatives . . . of Massachusetts-Bay" of June 8, 1692, for example, which proclaimed a thanksgiving for July 14. This one-page document could easily become the focus of a class discussion or paper assignment. Thanksgiving in July? Why were Puritan authorities thankful? And who were these authorities, and what did they prescribe for the day? Might the end of the Salem witchcraft trials, the arrival of a new governor and the restoration of stable government, under a new charter, have something to do with it?

Or consider the Thanksgiving sermon by Benjamin Throop of New London, Connecticut, delivered at Norwich on June 26, 1766, "Upon the Occasion, of the glorious News of the repeal of the Stamp Act." What was at stake? Did Americans believe God was on their side, and what side was that, and which Americans, as the escalating revolutionary crisis radically eroded the middle ground?

Or consider the impending crisis of the American Civil War through the lens of Thanksgiving. In its January 20, 1848 issue, the Pennsylvania Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper, expressed outrage at the governor of Maine's Thanksgiving Proclamation for 1847, which instructed clergy "not to preach against Slavery," nor "desecrate the day or profane the house of God by assaults upon the institutions of our sister States." The paper's headline decried those who complied under the banner of "Clerical Cowardice."

A November 1, 1849 opinion piece in Houston's Democratic Telegraph and Texas Register urged the governor to proclaim Thanksgiving in the Lone Star State, following New England's lead, even though it acknowledged, "we have no sympathy for those who are disposed to anathematise indiscriminately every thing of New England origin—such as abolition. With the abolition mania we have no more sympathy than has the Hon. John C. Calhoun, the champion of southern rights." In 1850, Texas Governor P. Hansborough Bell did issue a Thanksgiving proclamation, one that defended slavery against "unworthy attacks of ignorance or fanaticism." Two years later, the Boston Evening Transcript of December 28, 1852 editorialized, Texas "is a bad state." Why? Its celebration of Thanksgiving—that Yankee abolitionist holiday—had lapsed.

One could go on and on, through post-bellum America, the Gilded Age and the early 20th century—our cup of historical sources runs over. To paraphrase Mr. Dooley, we might express thanks to the documentary record of Thanksgiving for helping "preserve" us from historical amnesia and enriching our understanding of the American experience.

Matthew Dennis is Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. His books include Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Cornell University Press, 2002); Riot and Revelry in Early America (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002) (co-editor); Encyclopedia of Holidays and Celebrations: A Country by Country Guide, 3 vols. (Facts on File, 2006) (general editor); and Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1993), which won the New York State Historical Association Manuscript Award and the Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Prize from the American Society for Ethnohistory. He has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and the Beinecke Library at Yale University. He is currently engaged in the research and writing of a book-length study, American Relics and Politics of Memory.

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