J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Politics of Thanksgiving

These days we treat Thanksgiving as a family holiday for all Americans, regardless of political or sectarian divisions. But in pre-Revolutionary Boston, Thanksgiving was associated most strongly with the Congregationalist tradition, and thus with the Patriot cause. Royal governors issued Thanksgiving proclamations, but in practice Anglicans and friends of the royal government seem to have paid less respect to the holiday and, in times of political turmoil, even defied it.

In his unpublished manuscript The Bay-Boy, a novel set in the pre-Revolutionary Boston where he had grown up, Royall Tyler composed this conversation between his Congregationalist narrator and an Anglican doctor, quite possibly modeled on Dr. Silvester Gardiner:

Author. “...hoping you will permit me to spend Thanksgiving day with my Grandmother.”

Doctor G. “By all means. That Yankee festival is not in our calendar. Eat your pumpkin pudding wherever you please. I hope, however, you will take your Christmas pie with me.”
Thus, at least in this depiction, Congregationalists celebrated Thanksgiving with food and piety while Anglicans waited to feast on Christmas.

In late 1769, the Whigs were putting pressure on a few merchants and shopkeepers to sign on with the rest and stop selling British goods. This "non-importation" was intended to protest the Townshend duties. Among the remaining importers were Henry Barnes of Marlborough and Elisabeth Cumings of Boston, and their supporters included justice of the peace James Murray.

On 29 Nov 1769, Henry's wife Christian Barnes wrote to her friend Elizabeth Smith (who was also Justice Murray's sister) in London about the untraditional way her circle had observed Thanksgiving:
Last thursday which was thanksgiving Day a Ball was given by Mrs. [Elizabeth] Murray [the justice's wife] at Brush Hill [in Milton] to a number of Gentlemen & Ladys from Boston Miss E Cumings was one of the Party

their Goods and ours are arrived in very good order which has caused a Commity from the Well disposed [i.e., the Whig activists] to wait upon them and write to Mr. Barnes with a desire that the Goods may be stored till further orders and so they are to better purpose I hope then they design’d them for they are well Charg’d and I dare say will have a quick Sail [i.e., sale]
Political tensions were even higher on Thanksgiving Day in 1774. The few Sandemanian shopkeepers in Boston kept their shops open to show loyalty to the Crown and were “taken notice of,” as Samuel Adams wrote the next 31 January. (There was an ethnic component to these divisions as well: Cumings, Murray, Smith, and Sandeman were all Scottish immigrants.)

On the other hand, some Anglican families did adopt the Thanksgiving celebration. On 4 Dec 1770 Charles Pelham, a private schoolmaster in Newton, wrote to his half-brother Henry in Boston:
The bearer brings 1 1/2 busl. Malt for our Mama, and 3 buss. for Bror. [John Singleton] Copley, which being good, will afford you a great deal of wholsome Liquor. . . .

Its now very find wholsome weather and a little Tour into the Country would promote any one’s health, especially the Sedentary Persons; I therefore strenuously recommend your keeping the approaching Thanksgiving with us, but take me right; I do not invite you to a sumptuous feast, but to good wholsome Country Fare with undissembled friendship.
SEE ALSO: The politics of football in colonial Boston.

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