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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Monday, November 19, 2018

An Immigrant’s Advice to Jefferson about Thanksgiving

Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835) was a British radical politician who in the 1790s both served a term in Parliament and moved to Maine. He made his first appearance on Boston 1775 as a Ben Franklin fanboy.

While in America, Vaughan corresponded with various politicians, including President Thomas Jefferson. Living in New England, Vaughan was acutely aware how many of his pious neighbors distrusted Jefferson’s thoughts on religion.

Worried about the new President’s emphasis on keeping church and government separate might fly in New England, Vaughan wrote to Jefferson on 15 Mar 1801:
I trust that your administration will have few difficulties in these parts, provided it steers clear of religion. You are too wise & just to think of any official attacks upon religion, & too sincere to make any affected overtures in favor of it. You know where you are thought to be in this respect; & there it may be wise to stand.—

If a ruler however at times acts with a view to accommodate himself to the feelings, in which many of the citizens for whom he takes thought, participate; this can neither be considered as a violation of truth or of dignity; and is not likely to prove unacceptable, if done avowedly with this view.—

For example, it is not in, & is perhaps without the constitution, to recommend fasts & thanksgivings from the federal chair, at the seasons respectively when the New Englanders look for those things; & therefore you will not think it perhaps needful for you to meddle with such matters. But, if you did, this example will serve my purpose. You may then I presume safely & acceptably interfere with a view to name a time, when a large proportion of your constituents may be enabled to do the thing in question consentingly & cotemporarily. You certainly may make yourself in this an organ of the general convenience, without departing from any of your own principles; especially as you will take due care to use decorous language, should the occasion be used.

I do not however see any necessity for a federal fast or federal thanksgiving, when these things are open, to the states approving them, to order for themselves.—I treat the case therefore merely for illustration.—

The religion of the New-Englanders will require to be touched with tenderness. Your opinions are known, & in defiance of those opinions you have your office: consequently you m[ay?] continue to hold them, as a privileged person. But it will be wise, as to these parts of the Union, to keep these opinions in the only situation in which they have hitherto been seen; a private one; & for the regulation of your private conduct.
Presidents George Washington and John Adams had each proclaimed two national Thanksgivings. Adams’s proclamations became controversial, and he even blamed them in part for his loss to Jefferson in 1800. Adams had made his proclamations in the spring, which might explain why Vaughan was so eager in March to counsel the new President about how to handle that tradition.

President Jefferson maintained his stance against proclaiming Thanksgivings, but, as he wrote to his attorney general in 1802, he also felt the need to explain his reasons to the public.

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