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Thanksgiving and the American war effort

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

A thanksgiving holiday had been celebrated in England and later in North America at different times correlating with the harvest. But only in 1863, during the height of the US Civil war, was Thanksgiving declared (by President Lincoln) a national holiday. Likewise, in December 1941, soon after the U.S. officially entered World War II, President Roosevelt signed the law marking the fourth Thursday in November as a Federal Thanksgiving holiday. Is the wartime setting for these two recognitions of Thanksgiving significant?

It is tempting to see the timing of these national measures – in the midst of a national military crisis – as significant. In 1863, military victory for Union forces was very much in doubt. Also in doubt was Lincoln’s reelection in the 1864 presidential election, which threatened to bring to power a Democratic administration that would end the war by recognizing the Confederate States of America. In December 1941, the United States suffered a stunning and devastating Japanese attack, which launched the country headlong into a massive global war that most Americans had hoped to sit out. Millions of young men were about to be drafted into the armed forces and sent to foreign battlefields, and millions of families faced challenges and dangers on the home-front.

The United States has always been a deeply religious nation, so in the context of such grave threats to the nation and to millions of Americans, one can imagine the U.S. government establishing a national holiday of thanksgiving to reaffirm the nation’s relationship with God and draw strength and faith from that affirmation. This is a common religious experience in moments of existential crisis – a person realizes that s/he is at a moment of great import; a moment of accounting that clarifies his/her connection to and dependence on God. Psalm 23 (one of the most popular and best-known portions of the Bible) dramatizes this religious experience vividly. Until the moment of existential crisis, the Psalmist speaks of God in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.” But once he faces mortal danger, as he walks “through the valley of the shadow of death,” the author speaks to God directly, in the second person: “for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

However, this spiritual explanation for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday doesn’t match the timeline in both the 19th and 20th centuries. President Lincoln indeed issued a proclamation in 1863 inviting all Americans to observe Thanksgiving on the same day, and he indeed connected the holiday to the challenges and hardships of the war, but efforts to nationalize the holiday had been ongoing since the 1840s. This effort should thus be seen not as a reflection of wartime anxiety, but of the ongoing consolidation of the United States in the 19th century. From a patchwork of local communities and economies, the country was slowly connecting and drawing together into a more unitary whole – economically, logistically, culturally, legally, and politically. It was this consolidation, indeed, that transformed slavery from a purely local arrangement into a national issue that demanded a national policy (first the Missouri Compromise, then the Compromise of 1850, then the Dred Scott decision, then emancipation). This growing national integration produced a growing desire in the country to experience Thanksgiving together, as a nation; to transform it from a holiday celebrated at different times in different parts of the country into a unitary national holiday, celebrated at the same time from coast to coast. Congress enacted a law to this effect in 1870. Following Lincoln’s lead, the holiday was celebrated on the last Thursday in November, but this date was not stipulated in law.

As for FDR, in December 1941 he signed into law a joint resolution of Congress that specified the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, but Congress had introduced that resolution already in January of 1941, and approved it in October, two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s consequent declaration of war. Congress passed this resolution in 1941 because in 1939 and 1940, President Roosevelt moved the holiday from its habitual date to the third Thursday in November to extend the Christmas shopping season in yet another flailing attempt to stimulate the economy during the ongoing Great Depression. FDR’s signing of the Thanksgiving law should be attributed not to the wartime mood that descended on the nation in 1941, but to Americans’ attachment to this holiday. The president’s unilateral tinkering with the holiday schedule irked Americans, so they mobilized their Congressmen to force the president to stop.

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