Judd Birdsall is the project director of the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD) and a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. From 2011 to 2020 Birdsall was based at Cambridge University, where he earned his Ph.D. and then founded the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies (CIRIS). He also served as an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies. Prior to his time at Cambridge, he served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. Birdsall is the editor of Religion & Diplomacy, and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and Religion & Politics. He is also an editorial fellow and a frequent contributor at the Review of Faith & International Affairs.
During the decade my wife and I spent in England, we invited British and international friends to join us for celebrations of American Thanksgiving. Each year I took it upon myself—in part to compensate for my culinary uselessness—to give some remarks during the meal about the origin and meaning of the holiday. To aid my explanation, and to solemnize the occasion, I always read aloud the president’s Thanksgiving proclamation.
Every November the president of the United States has the task of articulating what the Thanksgiving tradition is all about. Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations—issued by Washington, Madison, and every president from Lincoln onward—provide a valuable window onto popular understandings and political uses of Thanksgiving.
Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations provide a valuable window onto popular understandings and political uses of Thanksgiving.
The format of the proclamation has changed little over time, but the substance has evolved significantly. Early proclamations had the feel of pious, theologically dense sermonettes on providence and the imperative to express gratitude to God. The first line of Washington’s first Thanksgiving proclamation set the tone: “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.”
In more recent decades, as the Thanksgiving tradition has developed, those Washington-esque exhortations have been joined by—and often eclipsed by—language celebrating the customs and ideals of Thanksgiving. No longer simply a day for praising God, Thanksgiving has become an event for praising American resolve, freedom, charity, togetherness, and achievement. In his 1986 proclamation Reagan opined, “Perhaps no custom reveals our character as a Nation so clearly as our celebration of Thanksgiving Day.”
This evolution of Thanksgiving from a holy day to a holiday has gone hand in hand with increased commemoration of the so-called “First Thanksgiving.” The proclamations of Obama and Trump, for instance, were filled with the story the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag and the harvest feast they shared in 1621.
This evolution of Thanksgiving from a holy day to a holiday has gone hand in hand with increased commemoration of the so-called ‘First Thanksgiving.’
This would have seemed odd to George Washington, James Madison, and their contemporaries. The only written eyewitness accounts of the 1621 festival were lost and forgotten during the later colonial and Early Republic eras. Thus, several generations of Americans made no connection between the Plymouth event and Thanksgiving Day.
Not until 1905 was there even a brief, indirect mention of the Pilgrims (“the first settlers”) in a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. The Pilgrims weren’t mentioned by name until FDR’s proclamation of 1939.
During the post-war period, the treatment of Pilgrims in Thanksgiving proclamations—mirroring the culture at large—became increasingly patriotic and hagiographical. The Pilgrims were presented not simply as the originators of Thanksgiving, but, at least implicitly, as the archetypical Americans. They bring and embody national ideals of courage, perseverance, industriousness, godliness, and hospitality.
Trump’s proclamations provide perhaps the most fulsome tribute to the Plymouth settlers. He hailed the Pilgrims as “dauntless souls,” “determined individuals,” and “intrepid men and women” who endured a “courageous and inspiring journey” and remained “unwavering in their commitment to their dreams.” In 2017 Trump declared, “Just as the Pilgrims did, today Americans stand strong, willing to fight for their families and their futures, to uphold our values, and to confront any challenge.”
What about the Indians? Following the first reference to the Pilgrims in 1905, it would take 75 years before Native Americans made an appearance in a proclamation as partakers in the First Thanksgiving. Teddy Roosevelt did mention Indians in 1908, but in a pejorative way and unrelated to the Plymouth story, recounting how the original 13 colonies braved “the Indian haunted wilderness.” The first reference, albeit brief and somewhat oblique, to Indian participation in the First Thanksgiving came in 1980. That year President Carter described Thanksgiving as “a commemoration—of the day America’s earliest inhabitants sat down to table with European colonists.”
What about the Indians? Following the first reference to the Pilgrims in 1905, it would take 75 years before Native Americans made an appearance in a proclamation as partakers in the First Thanksgiving.
It was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that Native Americans finally became prominent contributors to Thanksgiving in presidential proclamations. Reagan highlighted Native Americans in his proclamations of 1981, 1984, and 1988. In 1984, Reagan even noted that “native American Thanksgivings antedated those of the new Americans.”
Obama devoted by far the most space to Native Americans of any president in his Thanksgiving proclamations. He focused roughly equal attention on the Pilgrims and Indians, portraying the 1621 event as very much a collective experience. He found in their shared feast an image of interreligious, interracial mutuality and harmony that still resonates today. In his 2015 proclamation, Obama said, “In the same spirit of togetherness and thanksgiving that inspired the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, we pay tribute to people of every background and belief who contribute in their own unique ways to our country’s story.”
Like Obama, most presidents since the mid-twentieth century have used the word “spirit” when speaking of the essence and relevance of the First Thanksgiving. Kennedy’s 1962 proclamation featured an extended reflection on the “spirit of the Pilgrims,” which he identified as one of gratitude, fortitude, fraternity, generosity, bravery, and modesty. Clinton said in 1999 that the “spirit of Thanksgiving” calls Americans to “widen the circle of opportunity, break down the prejudices that alienate us from one another, and build an America of understanding and inclusion.”
In an era of intensified polarization in public life, I would argue that the inclusive and joyful civic ritual of Thanksgiving is important to preserve. The holiday is both indelibly Christian and yet open to all. Its central theme of gratitude and its host of accompanying values and virtues can be embraced by people of all faiths and worldviews.
In an era of intensified polarization in public life, I would argue that the inclusive and joyful civic ritual of Thanksgiving is important to preserve. The holiday is both indelibly Christian and yet open to all.
As Obama put it in his 2009 proclamation, “As Americans, we hail from every part of the world. While we observe traditions from every culture, Thanksgiving Day is a unique national tradition we all share.”
Throughout the history of the United States, Thanksgiving has evolved to include a patriotic national celebration of mythic founders and of the spirit of the harvest festival they held with Native Americans. Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations have both reflected and shaped that evolution.
The First Thanksgiving symbolizes and encapsulates America’s foundational ideals and highest aspirations. “Its spirit,” says Obama, “binds us together as one people.” And that’s something to give thanks for.
This post is adapted from Judd Birdsall, “The ‘First Thanksgiving’ in the 21st Century—As Retold in Presidential Proclamations,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 19, no.3 (2021): 55–64.