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American Heritage

November 25, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims and Indians in 1621. But how did Thanksgiving become an official national holiday? And has its meaning changed over time? We get some answers from NewsHour regulars — presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist-author Haynes Johnson — plus tonight, Rick Kennedy, professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He specializes in early American culture.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, where did the idea of a Thanksgiving ceremony, a Thanksgiving dinner, actually begin?

Thanksgiving’s early history

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it began in 1621, when the pilgrims famously celebrated getting through that first very tough winter in Massachusetts with 92 native American guests. And later on, after that, during about the next century and a half, there would oftentimes be a harvest festival — festivals of thanksgiving. Oftentimes, people would harken back to that first big dinner in 1621, but officially it didn’t really begin until 1789. General George Washington had just become president, and he declared that November that there should be an official Thanksgiving, really for having gotten through the Revolution and being able to give birth to the new nation. But even after that, around the United States, it wasn’t official, and it was mainly celebrated in New England.

You know, look, Jim, that Illinois, where I come from — early 19th century — we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving — that was thought of as sort of a Yankee holiday — the holiday, that interestingly enough, we celebrated was the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, which was January 8th. Thanksgiving was sort of very far down the list. That did not change until 1863. Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, wanted to bolster feeling for the union and also sort of quell feelings of regionalism, and he was — a campaign was made toward him by Boston editor Sara Josepha Hale. She had been doing this for years, saying that Thanksgiving should be a national holiday. Lincoln agreed, and then it took hold and we’ve been celebrating it nationally ever since.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Professor Kennedy, Sara Hale was a very interesting person. Tell us about her.

RICK KENNEDY: Yes. She was sort of a Martha Stewart of the 1840s and ’50s. She offered recipes and turkey and all these ideas for Thanksgiving, and proposed letters or — you know — called in her editorials to make national — make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She’s a great force. She saw this as a time for uniting the country in this time of sectional crisis, and the pilgrims and Indians offered her a model. She just took the New England holiday and wanted to make it national.

JIM LEHRER: Was it a religious thing with her, the idea of thanking God for all that we have to be thankful for?

RICK KENNEDY: Well, thankfulness is always religious. It’s one of the great virtues. You’ve got somebody to thank.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, what would you add to that, that early history?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think what’s interesting is when George Washington introduced the resolution into Congress, it wasn’t a slam-dunk affair. In fact, one congressman from South Carolina took issue with Washington’s claim, that we should thank God for the Constitution, for our religious and civil liberties, for the Revolutionary War having turned out well, by saying “How do we know this Constitution is going to be any good, we’re just starting it right now, so why are we thanking God for something when we’re not sure?”

But, of course, the resolution did pass. And interestingly, Thomas Jefferson didn’t keep the custom going. He thought it somehow smacked of the monarchy, of the kings, and he was always trying to get away from that tradition. So it came, as Michael said, in and out until Lincoln, and what Lincoln did was to thank providence for the success of the Battle of Gettysburg and hope that the God that could help him in that war would also help him bind up the wounds. He didn’t use those words until later. But he meant the same thing. There’s a lot of people suffering, and let this day — they used to call it public humiliation and prayer — in a certain sense hope for the Union again and binding up the wounds of all the widows and people who had lost families in the Civil War. So it wasn’t really until that time, as Michael said, that it became a national holiday.

And then the great thing is when Roosevelt in 1939 tries to move it back a week because the merchants say to him, if you move it back a week instead of the last week in November, we’ll have more time for shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everybody got mad at him, especially the calendar makers, who had already put it on their calendars for the years ahead and were being totally screwed up as a result. He finally had to go back again and have it back to that week where it had been the last week in November.

A national holiday

JIM LEHRER: So every holiday has a modern history and an ancient history, right, Haynes?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I was interested — the merchants were upset about FDR — they’d be upset today because all our holidays now seem to be commercial, except really Thanksgiving, I think, Jim, in the sense that we all have a sort of Norman Rockwell portrait in our minds and Americans look at Thanksgiving and expand its connections. And at the table, of course, it’s turkey and it’s coming together, even though the commercialization has — sort of begins the holiday season of selling and it ends with Christmas, but it’s a very special, different kind of holiday, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Now Rick Kenndy, going back to Lincoln and the Civil War, there was a state’s rights issue in there, was there not, over Thanksgiving?

RICK KENNEDY: Yes. Jefferson, I agree with how Doris — her estimation of Jefferson — but the — state’s rights, Lincoln went into office as a state’s rights president and comes out in 1863 profoundly thankful. Things are working out, you’ve got Vicksburg and Gettysburg won, the Emancipation Proclamation is in place, and he is trying to find some sense of hope. He also foresees or foreshadows the second inaugural by saying that this is both North and South have been sinful, we’ve been perverse — he uses that term perverseness — says that we need to pray for our sins and be thankful and then hope for the future.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But, Michael, wasn’t that the first national holiday we had where — because as you said — it began as kind of as a regional thing, and there was some opposition even when Lincoln did it — on regional grounds — other state’s rights grounds?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, and that was wound up with all the issues of the Civil War, of course, and the interesting thing is, if you think about it, Jim, nowadays the national American holidays that we celebrate are really very few. Veteran’s Day occurs, but that’s mainly an excuse for a lot of people for a three-day weekend. George Washington’s birthday, which people used to celebrate in a very big way, and Lincoln’s birthday too, they’ve now been subsumed in this strange thing called Presidents Day, which again, is sort of a commercial holiday, three days late in February, so what that really leaves is the two secular American holidays that are left are Fourth of July, Independence Day, and also Thanksgiving.

And the Fourth of July we all celebrate one way or another but we’re not that much involved unanimously in ceremony and firing off firecrackers and wearing Uncle Sam costumes. But Thanksgiving just about every single American sits down at that table, eats roughly the same thing, and it turned out to be Thanksgiving is the one holiday where we really are rather unified. The irony is that that’s a holiday that dates back to white Europeans in 1621. Many people would think that’s not politically correct.

JIM LEHRER: Haynes.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And as a matter of fact, on that very first one they were celebrating the Indians — they had survived a rough winter, the pilgrims did, and also survived Indian reparations and so forth, so the whole thing is wrapped up in our history — interesting history though — three presidents — think about it — Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt — its entwined with our great presidents — the history of Thanksgiving and also the history of our country in a way that’s inseparable.

A day of families uniting

JIM LEHRER: Doris, Michael used the word “secular” as a way to describe this holiday. Some would say it is religious, because you really are praying, and whether you — however you pray — it is sitting at the table, et cetera, is a religious act. How do you see it?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, I think that is true. In the olden days in some of those earlier presidential proclamations they would specifically call on people to go to their places of worship in order to pray, but then later, Roosevelt deliberately dropped that, and you had the feeling that he was already in his mind’s eye seeing people sitting at their family tables, which had taken over for some people going to a place of worship on that day.

The interesting thing, though, is I was thinking about this — to do this for today, and I’m not sure that I even in my own mind have thought of it as a holiday to thank God for the nation that we’ve had, which is what they did much more in the earlier days. God was providence, the good things that had happened to us, and Roosevelt talked about social justice, coming out of the Depression; Lincoln talked about the Battle of Gettysburg as we said. It was definitely a link for thanking the Constitution and America. And I’m not sure when people sit down with their families — at least I’m not sure I thought about it — you do thank God for what’s happened to your family, but whether we still think in that same larger sense as a nation is a question that I would raise.

JIM LEHRER: Rick Kennedy, how would you answer that question? What is it that today — people when they go to sit down for Thanksgiving — what is it that mostly they are thankful for? What is the point of it today?

RICK KENNEDY: Well, I’d rather speak to the history; I’m an historian.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

RICK KENNEDY: You know, the –

JIM LEHRER: I’m going to make you answer the other one –

RICK KENNEDY: (laughing) Part of the merging that happened after Lincoln was to take the Civil War story of conflict, North and South, black and white, and merge it with the pilgrims and Indian conflict, and so it’s a holiday in which these multiple levels of conflict, unresolvable conflict in many ways, are united, and the pilgrim story — it’s a fascinating story of how Squanto sort of brokers peace between these two fundamentally antagonistic peoples and also he, himself, dies of disease within a couple of years.

JIM LEHRER: Remind us who he was.

RICK KENNEDY: Squanto, the Indian — we teach the kids in school that he taught — you know — to plant fish with the corn or maize, but he was a kidnapped Patuxent — a Wampanoag Indian taken over in 1614 or so over to Europe — freed in Spain — learned probably several European languages, spent five years, six years over there, then returned to his village in Patuxent — found it completely decimated by disease, so he’s a — he’s a homeless Indian — among his people — then up shows the next year the pilgrims. He speaks English. He then begins to be a mediator. He speaks a number of Wampanoag dialects. He mediates peace; there’s a peace treaty created. It’s a great situation, and the possibility of hope is there for racial unity. Now we know from the history, the context of the disease and all of the problems that are going to develop here, but the greatness of the moment is this possibility of unity, and then that gets reunited with the Civil War story.

JIM LEHRER: All right. And I’m determined to ask that question before we go. Michael, first, what do you think it means today?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it’s something — and this is one reason why it’s a holiday that hits people so deeply — people use it for whatever they want — they are grateful, they’re thankful, and they project on it almost as a blank screen.

JIM LEHRER: Haynes.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Especially about families — connections, personal, and Doris is right; it’s not about the union as such but in the background we all know we’re part of this country.

JIM LEHRER: Do you want to add anything to that, Doris?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: No. Only that in a time when people are more spread apart and fragmented as families it probably means even more now than when families used to live right next to each other, because they come from all over the country to get together on this one day.

JIM LEHRER: Rick Kennedy?

RICK KENNEDY: Well, I’d say that one of the nice things about families getting together is, is that often families have a whole lot of problems, and this is one time where they get together and it’s similar to the situation with the North and South — the Indians and the whites.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We’ll leave it there. Thank you all and have a nice Thanksgiving.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Thank you, you too.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Thanks, Jim.