In recent years a new Thanksgiving tradition has developed: people complaining about it. Critics allege that our third president, Thomas Jefferson, regarded Thanksgiving as “The most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard.” As of this writing, a Google search yields 581 results of this statement, coupled with “Jefferson” and “Thanksgiving.”
Did Jefferson really say those words? What documentation is cited by the skeptics?
Thanks to the digital revolution, a comprehensive repository of published materials from the eighteenth and nineteenth century is available online. Newsbank offers America’s Historical Newspapers, America’s Historical Imprints. Gale provides Eighteenth Century Collections Online, The Making of the Modern World, Sabin Americana, Nineteen Century Collections Online, and Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers. Digitized newspapers are also available through ProQuest and Access Newspaper Archive. Do these sources document the quote? No. Neither is there any citation at Thomas Jefferson’s libraries at Monticello.
Why do critics not cite the source of their claim? Perhaps because the quote is bogus.
J. P. Holding pursued the matter online and could find no usage of the quote earlier than 2006—nearly two centuries after Jefferson’s death.
Why would Jefferson disparage Thanksgiving? The concept was commonplace in early American history as documented in the Thanksgiving Proclamations stored here.
It may shock critics to learn that when Jefferson was governor of Virginia, he issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, on November 11, 1779:
WHEREAS the Honourable the General Congress, impressed with a grateful sense of the goodness of Almighty God, in blessing the greater part of this extensive continent with plentiful harvests, crowning our arms with repeated successes, conducting us hitherto safely through the perils with which we have been encompassed and manifesting in multiplied instances his divine care of these infant states, hath thought proper by their act of the 20th day of October last, to recommend to the several states that Thursday the 9th of December next be appointed a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer, which act is in these words, to wit.
"Whereas it becomes us humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God, with gratitude and praise, for the wonders which his goodness has wrought in conducting our forefathers to this western world; for his protection to them and to their posterity, amidst difficulties and dangers; for raising us their children from deep distress, to be numbered among the nations of the earth; and for arming the hands of just and mighty Princes in our deliverance; and especially for that he hath been pleased to grant us the enjoyment of health and so to order the revolving seasons, that the earth hath produced her increase in abundance, blessing the labours of the husbandman, and spreading plenty through the land; that he hath prospered our arms and those of our ally, been a shield to our troops in the hour of danger, pointed their swords to victory, and led them in triumph over the bulwarks of the foe; that he hath gone with those who went out into the wilderness against the savage tribes; that he hath stayed the hand of the spoiler, and turned back his meditated destruction; that he hath prospered our commerce, and given success to those who sought the enemy on the face of the deep; and above all, that he hath diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory. Therefore,
Resolved, that it be recommended to the several states to appoint THURSDAY the 9th of December next, to be a day of publick and solemn THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, for his mercies, and of PRAYER, for the continuance of his favour and protection to these United States; to beseech him that he would be graciously pleased to influence our publick Councils, and bless them with wisdom from on high, with unanimity, firmness and success; that he would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; that he would grant to his church, the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth; that he would smile upon the labours of his people, and cause the earth to bring forth her fruits in abundance, that we may with gratitude and gladness enjoy them; that he would take into his holy protection, our illustrious ally, give him victory over his enemies, and render him finally great, as the father of his people, and the protector of the rights of mankind; that he would graciously be pleased to turn the hearts of our enemies, and to dispence the blessings of peace to contending nations.
That he would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into his favour; and finally, that he would establish the independance of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue, and support and protect them in the enjoyment of peace, liberty and safety."
I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion. Given under my hand and the seal of the commonwealth, at Williamsburg, this 11th day of November, in the year of our Lord, 1779, and in the fourth of the commonwealth.
Thanksgiving was observed sporadically in the early 19th century on the federal level while being observed regularly on a state level.
In Volume Three of his diary, President Rutherford B. Hayes pointed out, "I have the Thanksgiving Proclamations of twenty-seven States--all recognizing religion, nearly all the religion of the Bible, and several the Divinity of Christ. More are coming, doubtless. Our Legislature for many years has passed a joint resolution annually authorizing a thanksgiving and frequently in terms which recognized the religion of the Bible. The last Legislature omitted to do so by a mere accident this year, but in [the] Sixty-fifth volume Ohio Laws, page 306, passed one last year. If you wish to borrow my bundle of Thanksgiving Proclamations I will send them to you. All state institutions have religious exercises, some of them chaplains paid under state laws. The meetings of the two houses of the General Assembly are always opened with prayer in accordance, sometimes, with resolutions (passed unanimously usually), and sometimes by common consent. The inaugurations of governors are prefaced by religious exercises." From the Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, p. 72.
Historian Franklin Benjamin Hough wrote a compilation, Proclamations for Thanksgiving, issued by the Continental Congress: Pres't Washington, by the national and state governments on the Peace of 1815, and by the governors of New York since the introduction of the custom; with those of the governors of the several states in 1858, accessible here.
President Chester Arthur stated in his Thanksgiving Proclamation, “It has long been the pious custom of our people, with the closing of the year, to look back upon the blessings brought to them in the changing course of the seasons and to return solemn thanks to the all-giving source from whom they flow.”
To honor God is the least we can do for all He has done for us, for America. Jefferson understood that—as have American statesmen throughout history.
Why let critics rob us of this privilege?
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J. P. Holding exposes more bogus quotes at TektonTV. Click here for more.