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 27, 2008

A Massachusetts Thanksgiving in Newport

We consider Thanksgiving a very inclusive American holiday, but back during the Revolutionary turmoil it was actually a source of division.

In 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress declared that Thursday, 15 December, would be a Thanksgiving. Proclaiming such holidays was traditionally the prerogative of the governor, so this was a sign that royal authority had broken down in the province even before the outbreak of war.

Furthermore, as I discussed back here, New Englanders saw Thanksgiving as a Puritan/Congregationalist and Yankee tradition. Anglicans and friends of the royal government didn’t have the same fondness for it. They celebrated Christmas while most Congregationalists ignored that holiday and kept their shops open.

When the 15th arrived, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport wrote in his diary:

This day public Thanksgiving thro’ the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was not appointed as usual by the Governor & Council, who issued no proclamation; but by the Provincial Congress which recommended to the Churches to set apart & observe this day as a day of public Thanksgiving, & printed the same signed by Jno. Hancock President. It was later than usual, I suppose, that we might have the more intelligence from England.
The Harvard Square Library offers a look at the Provincial Congress’s proclamation. Stiles’s comment on “intelligence from England” might refer to the news of the Parliament elected in Britain that September. Patriot leaders had hoped its members would repeal the new acts punishing Massachusetts for the Tea Party, but instead Lord North’s ministry became stronger and firmer. The governors of Connecticut and New Hampshire had proclaimed Thanksgivings on 24 November, so the Massachusetts holiday was indeed late.

Stiles recorded that “Our two Congregational Churches in Newport” observed the holiday as well. He started a service in his meeting-house at 10:30 A.M. with the singing of Isaac Watts’s setting of the 100th Psalm. Later the congregation sang part of Watts’s 145th Psalm, and Stiles preached on it. He concluded his notes on the day by writing, “I dined at Mr. Chesebroughs”.

TOMORROW: But some New Englanders conspicuously didn’t observe that Thanksgiving in 1774.

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