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  • Thomas Sayre

Thanksgiving: America's First National Holiday

Upon the success of crafting the US Constitution, America's Founders expressed their gratitude to God through an official act of the Federal Government. We still celebrate this act, centuries later, yet nearly every American I have asked is unaware of it.

Our schools seem to have been purged of genuine American history. I was certainly not exposed to the truth on this matter in all my years in public school. To help you share true history with your children and friends, I present to you key facts regarding the Thanksgiving Holiday.

What is a Holiday? The word stems from the Old English hāligdæg, meaning 'holy day'. The word originally referred only to special religious days. And that's what the Thanksgiving Holyday is.


To commemorate the success of the Revolution, of crafting a Constitution for a Republican system of government and God's guiding intervention throughout, Congress and President George Washington established a national day of prayer, inviting all Americans to participate. The prayer reads as follows.

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. Go: Washington

This prayer was printed in newspapers throughout the newly created United States, so that the nation as a whole could share and participate in thanking God for 'interpositions of his Providence' in the establishment of the new nation.

Other official government proclamations followed, such as the 1791 Massachusetts "Proclamation for a Day of Public Thanksgiving" by John Hancock, calling upon "Ministers and People of every denomination to assemble on the said day - and in the name of the Great Mediator devoutly and sincerely offer to Almighty God the gratitude of our Hearts" for prosperity and Liberty and the most important blessing, "the Gospel of Jesus Christ".

To this day, we still recognize the precedent established by our nation's Founders as we celebrate the Thanksgiving Holy Day each year. While it is up to your own individual belief system how you celebrate, let us all appreciate the history and the benefits that we have received from our Founders' efforts.


I believe The Center for Legislative Archives clearly summarizes how the Thanksgiving Holy Day became an annual event in the United States, eventually morphing into the festive and commercial event we now experience. So, let's quote that site directly.

It wasn't until President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.

In 1939, however, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month. Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November. As a result of the proclamation, 32 states issued similar proclamations while 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. For two years two days were celebrated as Thanksgiving - the President and part of the nation celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November, while the rest of the country celebrated it the following week.

To end the confusion, Congress decided to set a fixed-date for the holiday. On October 6, 1941, the House passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day. The Senate, however, amended the resolution establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday, which would take into account those years when November has five Thursdays. The House agreed to the amendment, and President Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941, thus establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.


The Thanksgiving origin story taught to nearly all Americans in public schools is considerably different. It does not relate to the National Holy Day at all, except that it too was a gathering for prayer in which the pilgrims at Plymouth shared a feast with the local Indians. This occurred long before the United States was created. It was a Christian tradition to celebrate the Autumn harvest with a commemorative day of prayer to God giving thanks for divine providence.

The Plymouth colony was established as a socialist commune. Each person worked to provide according to his ability and the product of labor was shared equally. Washer women washed for all. Corn that was grown was equally distributed. This sounds like the Utopian vision later embraced by Karl Marx that would, or so its proponents proclaim, lead to plenty for all. But, the system created problems for those forced to live under its rules. In the journals of Plymouth's Governor Bradford, we read that:

"The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice."

"And for men's wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it."

"After this course settled, and by that their corn was planted, all their victuals were spent, and they were only to rest on God's providence; at night not many times knowing whether to have a bit of any thing the next day. "

If this sounds like the deprivation experienced in Venezuela, North Korea, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Cuba and so many other places that tried forced collectivism, there is good reason for it. The result is repeated throughout the history of socialist governments. Half the people of the Plymouth colony would starve to death within a couple of years.

In the midst of this growing trouble, the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in 1621. They organized several days of feasting and prayer, thanking God and praying for His protection.

In March of 1621, the Plymouth Pilgrims had entered into a treaty of mutual protection with Massasoit, the leader of the Pokanoket Wampanoag. To provision the Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims shot a large number of wild game. And, as Edward Winslow documented, "we exercised our arms." The historical record indicates that Massasoit received word of a great deal of gunfire coming from the Pilgrim village and he gathered up a large number of warriors to render aid.

When the Wampanoag leader and his 90 warriors arrived, they were invited to join the feast. But, there was not enough food prepared to go around.

“He [Massasoit] sends his men out, and they bring back five deer, which they present to the chief of the English town [William Bradford]. So, there is this whole ceremonial gift-giving, as well. When you give it as a gift, it is more than just food,” said Kathleen Wall, a Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation.

[ The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story

The Wampanoag and Plymouth Pilgrims shared in feasting, in friendship and in prayer to God. Their alliance seemed to be off to a good start but the forced collectivism would, in the next two years, drive the colony into utter despair, desperation, thievery and would do great damage to their relationship with the Wampanoag.

"And after they begane to come into wants, many sould away their cloathes and bed coverings; others (so base were they) became servants to ye Indeans, and would cutt them woode & fetch them water, for a cap full of corne; others fell to plaine stealing, both night & day, from ye Indeans, of which they greevosly complained. In ye end, they came to that misery, that some starved & dyed with could & hunger. One in geathering shell-fish was so weake as he stuck fast in ye mudd, and was found dead in ye place. At last most of them left their dwellings & scatered up & downe in ye woods, & by ye water side, wher they could find ground nuts & clames, hear 6. and ther ten. By which their cariages they became contemned & scorned of ye Indeans, and they begane greatly to insulte over them in a most insolente maner;" - Governor Bradford, 1623


Governor Bradford knew he had to solve the problem. He learned from the mistake of socialism and chose a different path, one that would lead to a powerful lesson in the establishment of the United States Constitution over a century later.

"At length, after much debate of things, the Governor ... gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end."

The Governor instituted private property rights, so that each family could produce as much as they like to provide for themselves, to trade with their neighbors and to sell to surrounding Indian tribes.

"This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression."

With an end to enforced sharing of wealth, the colonists had the opportunity to work to improve their own lot and to profit by their hard work. And work they did! The Governor observed that no amount of bullying or punishment could have brought about this change in their manners. The profit motive, that is the ability to own the product of one's labor, created prosperity beyond all expectation.

"Instead of famine now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God." - Governor Bradford, 1623


The Plymouth plantation was certainly a historical lesson in the minds of the Framers of the US Constitution. They set forth to establish a new system of government and, very consciously, worked to protect the American people from past mistakes. Their wisdom in making socialism illegal in the newly established United States should not be lost on us, as we see one nation after another fall to starvation and ruin by following that pattern.

Were you aware that the Framers were intentionally trying to protect America from the system of socialism?

"The utopian schemes of leveling [redistribution of wealth], and a community of goods, are as visionary and impracticable as those that vest all property in the Crown. [These ideas] are arbitrary, despotic, and, in our government, unconstitutional." - Samuel Adams

American prosperity and high quality of life can be largely credited to the system of private ownership of property protected by our Constitution. The Plymouth Plantation was a small but effective demonstration of the different effects produced by the two different systems.


This Thanksgiving, you have a wonderful opportunity to share with your family and friends the history that, for most of us, was left out of our education. You can do your part to educate, illuminate and discuss the lessons learned.

  • George Washington's day of prayer to God was the first Holy Day established by the United States under the US Constitution.

  • The Constitution was intentionally written to protect Americans from collectivism / socialism.

  • The Pilgrims were saved by escaping from socialism and the misery it creates.

Have a fun, blessed and prosperous Thanksgiving.

Personal note: Your town probably has food banks to help provide for the needy. Each dollar you donate goes a long way towards helping others. Or, visit a Dollar Store or other discount food store and purchase an abundance of canned goods to fill the donation bins.

Share a link to this article to help teach real history and share your feast, as did the Pilgrims of Plymouth.

- Thomas Sayre

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