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 26, 2009

“The Unpopularity of National Fasts and Thanksgivings”

In a letter dated 12 June 1812, John Adams wrote to his old Continental Congress colleague Dr. Benjamin Rush about why he’d lost the presidency twelve years earlier. Adams put the blame on...Thanksgiving!

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, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, &c, &c, &c, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of 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 “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, [Aaron] Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, 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 letter was first published by Alexander Biddle in a volume called Old Family Letters (1892).

Authors have accepted a lot of Adams’s late-life recollections and analyses uncritically, but not this one. The notion that a Thanksgiving proclamation was the most unpopular of Adams’s acts in office seems incredible.

In fact, the American government had already proclaimed occasional Thanksgiving holidays, and they seemed to be popular. The Congress declared one on 18 Dec 1777 (though with Philadelphia under British control, members had less to be thankful for). When Adams’s predecessor, George Washington, issued such a proclamation in 1789, he noted that “both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested” it.

Jefferson didn’t follow his predecessors in this regard, but he also felt the need of “saying why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings,” as he told Attorney General Levi Lincoln. Jefferson found that opening in his famous 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, which said:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
And after that, Jefferson was reelected while Adams wasn’t. So was there something about Adams’s proclamations that made them more controversial than others?

TOMORROW: What was different about Adams’s Thanksgiving proclamations.

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