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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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

“They could not join in giving thanks”

Yesterday I shared the 1771 Thanksgiving proclamation issued by Gov. Thomas Hutchinson (shown here). It quickly became a source of controversy.

Why? In his role as historian, Hutchinson presented his side of the story this way:
It had been a long, uninterrupted practice for the governor, as soon as harvest was over, to issue every year a proclamation for a publick thanksgiving, and, among the enumerated publick mercies, the continuance of civil and religious liberties had constantly, perhaps without exception, been mentioned. The proclamation, by advice of council, was issued this year in the usual form.

After the people of the province had been prepared for such an attempt by the publick newspapers, a number of persons, in the character of a committee, attended upon the ministers of Boston, to desire that they would not read the proclamation to their congregations. One had read it; the rest, one excepted [the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton], complied with the desire of the committee. There was not sufficient time to prepare the ministers of the country towns. Some, however, declined reading it; and some declared in the pulpit, that if the continuance of all our liberties was intended, they could not join in giving thanks.

It having been the constant practice to read such proclamations in all the churches through the province, a more artful method of exciting the general attention of the people, which would otherwise, for want of subject, have ceased, could not have been projected.
Hutchinson thus presented the objections to the phrase “the continuance of civil and religious liberties” as an artificial controversy, ginned up by the Whig political faction to attack him.

And it’s true that 1771 had been a quiet year. With no troops stationed in Boston and most of the Townshend duties repealed, Samuel Adams was having trouble finding ways to demonstrate the imperial government’s overreach that resonated with the people.

But Hutchinson overstated his case as well.

TOMORROW: Examining the Thanksgiving record.

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