Thanksgiving was a very fluid holiday in early America, with formal days for giving thanks being declared individually by most states throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. President Lincoln eventually established it as a fixed, national holiday in 1863, but even after Lincoln, the day of Thanksgiving was shifted around several times by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, before finally landing on the fourth Thursday of November in 1941. While there were a few national days of Thanksgiving in 18th century America, it was for the most part the duty of the Governor to issue a proclamation for a day of Thanksgiving, as decided by the General Assemblies. Reading through these proclamations gives us a sense of not only how early Americans felt the day should be celebrated, but also what they were specifically thankful for during different periods in American history. The following examples are taken from the Newport Mercury (est. 1758) from the years 1765, 1810, and 1814.
On November 11, 1765, “the Honorable Samuel Ward, Esq.; Governor, Captain General, and Commander in Chief, in and over the English Colony of Rhode-Island, and Providence Plantations” issued a proclamation stating that the General Assembly had decided Thursday November 28, 1765 would be observed as a day of Thanksgiving. This was published in the Newport Mercury on November 18, 1765. At this time, Rhode Island was still a colony under England, dependent on its favor. Ward’s proclamation thus includes a reminder to the people to give thanks to God not only for the favor he has shown them, but also for the life and health of the King and the rest of the Royal family. He writes, “I do also exhort all Persons to offer up their most sincere and fervent Prayers to Almighty God that he will be graciously pleased to continue his kind and favorable Regard to the Kingdoms of Great-Britain and Ireland, and their Dependencies, to the British Plantations in general, and this Colony in particular.” For Rhode Islanders in 1765, their well-being was tied up with England and this day of Thanksgiving was a reminder of that. Ward encouraged people to religiously observe the day, “by meeting at their usual Places of public Worship,” made possible by his inhibiting and forbidding “any servile Labour to be done thereon, and all Manner of Sports and Pastimes.” Thanksgiving was a day removed from work, intended for religious observation and thanks to God.
The Newport Mercury ceased printing during the British occupation of Newport, but it began again soon after the Revolutionary War. In the proclamation by Governor James Fenner published in the Mercury on November 17, 1810, his suggestions for how to physically observe Thanksgiving remained very much the same. He recommended that people, “abstain, on that day, from servile labour and unbecoming recreation, and [assemble] at their places of public worship” to give thanks to God. Fenner further recommends that the people of Rhode Island thank God for the creation, preservation, and blessings of life, for their exemption from “the miseries of war,” and most tellingly, “for the enjoyment of equal laws, and of our institutions of government, combining liberty with order…. That He would enable us to defend our rights and true interests against foreign usurpation and hostility.” This new Rhode Island had come through the Revolutionary War and seen the creation of the United States survive. Now, rather than thanking God for the life of their King, he counsels people to ask that God bestow his favor upon the President and Congress of the United States. Both proclamations demonstrated how the day was used to give thanks for public and private life, but public life in Rhode Island, and in America, changed radically between 1765 and 1810.
Just a few short years later, the United States became embroiled in the War of 1812, which lasted until 1815. In the midst of this, published in the Mercury on November 19, 1814, Governor William Jones issued a proclamation for a day of Thanksgiving, which gave thanks for all that Rhode Island and America continued to enjoy in spite of the ongoing war. He writes, “that although unhappily plunged into a disastrous war, we have not been called to experience its severest horrors, and above all that we still enjoy the blessings of the gospel and the means of salvation.” Jones also urged people to beseech God that he may guide “our rulers, and the rulers of the nation with whom we are at war, into the paths of peace” while again gathering in their usual houses of worship. This Thanksgiving proclamation mirrors its time, like the others, but in the face of war, it must work harder to remind people why they should be thankful at all.
These are mere snapshots of life in early Rhode Island, but it is telling that the proclamations of days of Thanksgiving came during years when there was peace and war, that they advocated for thanks through prayer and worship, and that they all directly referenced the political landscape of the time.