Today there is no doubt that across America Thanksgiving will be celebrated. But when John Adams was president, that was very much not the case.
Thanksgiving celebrations themselves date back to the earliest days of New England colonies. But federal government proclamations of the day of thanksgiving were political hot potatoes. After the American Revolution, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, but not without considerable debate in congress as to whether it was appropriate.
Connecticut Senator Roger Sherman was instrumental in having the Congress approve the proclamation. Washington would issue a second Thanksgiving proclamation in 1795.
John Adams, during his presidency, declared two days of fasting and thanks giving, in May of 1798 and April of 1799. Adams’ second proclamation read in part:
I do hereby recommend accordingly, that Thursday, the 25th day of April next, be observed throughout the United States of America as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens on that day abstain as far as may be from their secular occupations, devote the time to the sacred duties of religion in public and in private; that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions in time to come . . . And I do also recommend that with these acts of humiliation, penitence, and prayer fervent thanksgiving to the Author of All Good be united for the countless favors which He is still continuing to the people of the United States, and which render their condition as a nation eminently happy when compared with the lot of others.
Adams was born a Congregationalist and evolved into a Unitarian. He felt religion was essential to a civilized society. But in 1800 he was soundly thumped in his reelection effort by Thomas Jefferson, who firmly believed that the Constitution prohibited the president from having any role in “intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises.” That included issuing a Thanksgiving proclamation, which Jefferson did not do.
The election of 1800 turned on a number of issues, but later in life Adams concluded his beliefs about religion, and his Thanksgiving proclamation, helped topple him from office. In an 1812 letter to Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush he wrote:
The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of Office. It was connected with, the general Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists Mennonists, Moravians, Sweedenborgians, Methodist, Catholicks, Protestant Episcopalians, Arians Socinians, Arminians & &c. Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment as a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The Secret Whisper ran through them all the Sects “Let Us have Jefferson Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deist or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President. This Principle is at the Bottom of the Unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings, Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion. This wild Letter I very much fear, contains Seeds of an Ecclesiastical History of the U.S. for a Century to come.
Adams’ complete letter can be found here. James Madison would issue a Thanksgiving proclamation as president, and then it would not be proclaimed again by a president until Abraham Lincoln.