I meant to post this earlier, but things happened, like turkey, NaNo, and all the stuff I’ve left at my parents’ house showing up on my doorstep, which sadly had all the things I didn’t want and none of the things I did want.
Back to the topic at hand: As everyone knows (I hope), the “first” Thanksgiving was celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts by the Pilgrims, who were celebrating a bountiful harvest after a couple of rough years in which many of them died from starvation and disease. What helped them survive the next year was the assistance of the Wampanoag tribe, and Squanto of the Patuxent people, who taught them about agriculture and planting and things. I remember seeing a picture in elementary school of Squanto planting dead fish with corn seeds and of the Pilgrims looking on in awe. As the dead fish decayed, they would provide vital nutrients for the growing corn plants. Mmm dericious.
Fast forward several decades to the Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress, and later Presidents Washington and Adams, declared several days for giving thanks and prayer. But these days were more for the spirit of the occasion and less for a commemoration of the first Pilgrim feast. On October 3, 1789, President George Washington declared:
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 tranquility, 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 shown 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.
“George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. October 3, 1789”. George Washington Papers. Library of Congress.
The designation of one day set aside for giving thanks was more or less standard through most of the states and territories, on various days of the year. Some presidents and governors even designated multiple days in one year for giving thanks. Thomas Jefferson did not call for a day of thanksgiving, but Thomas Jefferson was a honey badger. This changed in 1863 when President Lincoln officially declared a Thanksgiving Holiday on the final Thursday of November:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”
Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.
We Americans are a funny bunch. It is considered a basic human right to have Thanksgiving Day off of work so we can spend time with family and friends to give thanks for all the year’s blessings. And then we go trample each other to death the next day for the latest toy. Compare to Washington and Lincoln, who both lived in much less certain times. Washington had just overthrown the most powerful empire in the world but if Congress and the
colonies states couldn’t get their stuff in gear, the Revolution might as well have not happened and he would be tried and hung as a traitor. Lincoln’s proclamation came only a few short months after Vicksburg and Gettysburg (but before the Address), which were some of the first real victories on the Union side but he still had a steep uphill climb to victory.
But that is neither here nor there.
MORE IMPORTANTLY, for my family, this is a remembrance of my mother’s direct ancestor, John Billington. According to family lore, Billington was one of the Others who came over on the Mayflower. There were the Pilgrims who were seeking religious freedom, and then there were the Others who made it a legitimate business venture. So Billington, his wife and his two sons sailed over. Except they almost didn’t make it because his sons got into the gunpowder while the ship was in the middle of the Atlantic. Strike one.
He was outspoken against Myles Standish and rule of the Puritan church, and so was labeled a knave. Strike two. [ However, based on the experience of just about everyone in my immediate family and the way we react to people in authority we consider to be egregiously idiotic, one could reframe these incidents as a man thinking for himself, asking too many questions, and authority reacting badly. #justsayin ]
He got into a land dispute with his neighbor. They had the whole of the continent before them and he fought his neighbor over a few acres. I suppose Manifest Destiny hadn’t been invented yet so they could be forgiven. Well, the neighbor wasn’t cooperating, so Billington shot him. But the guy lived for another three days, or long enough to accuse his killer. Strike three.
So the colony voted, and they hanged Billington, making him the first federally executed criminal in the colonies, before the federal government existed. Three strikes, you’re out.
BUT the name Billington isn’t total rot. Also according to family lore, one of the sons [the same one caught having extramarital relations with William Penn’s daughter, I think] got lost out in the woods, got picked up by some Native Americans and that was how the Pilgrims met the Indians.
You may thank me, on behalf of my family, in the comments section.
Oh. And lest I forget, this branch of the family went on to become cranberry farmers in Wisconsin and own(ed) something like a controlling share of Ocean Spray. So while we celebrate turkey and civil disobedience, we also celebrate Ocean Spray and fancied up Jellied Cranberry Sauce.