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 24, 2022

The Continental Congress’s Thanksgivings

On 1 Nov 1777, the Continental Congress issued a recommendation “to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES” to observe a Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, 18 December.

The proclamation didn’t allude to any particular event, but scholars treat this as an expression of gratitude for the Continental victory at Saratoga.

Certainly the Congress, then meeting in York, Pennsylvania, after being pushed out of Philadelphia, wasn’t feeling thankful about the Battles of Brandywine or Germantown.

The 1777 proclamation was explicitly Christian, referring to “the Merits of JESUS CHRIST,” and culminating in a prayer “to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth ‘in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.’”

The Congress continued to issue Thanksgiving proclamations every fall until after the formal end of the war. The 1779 and 1780 resolutions were explicitly Christian, the other four merely theistic (though one mentioned “Louis the Most Christian King our ally”).

At first the Thanksgiving proclamations kept up the pattern of not mentioning specific events. But the long document of 26 Oct 1781, issued just days after the Congress learned of the victory at Yorktown, spelled out multiple blessings:
the goodness of God in the year now drawing to a conclusion:

in which a mutiny in the American Army [the Pennsylvania Line Mutiny, which drove the Congress out of Philadelphia again] was not only happily appeased but became in its issue a pleasing and undeniable proof of the unalterable attachment of the people in general to the cause of liberty since great and real grievances only made them tumultuously seek redress while the abhorred the thoughts of going over to the enemy,

in which the Confederation of the United States has been completed [i.e., Maryland finally ratified the Articles of Confederation] by the accession of all without exception in which there have been so many instances of prowess and success in our armies; particularly in the southern states, where, notwithstanding the difficulties with which they had to struggle, they have recovered the whole country which the enemy had overrun, leaving them only a post or two upon on or near the sea [Charleston, Savannah, and Wilmington, which was soon to be evacuated]:

in which we have been so powerfully and effectually assisted by our allies, while in all the conjunct operations the most perfect union and harmony has subsisted in the allied army:

in which there has been so plentiful a harvest, and so great abundance of the fruits of the earth of every kind, as not only enables us easily to supply the wants of the army, but gives comfort and happiness to the whole people:

and in which, after the success of our allies by sea, a General of the first Rank [Cornwallis], with his whole army, has been captured by the allied forces under the direction of our illustrious Commander in Chief.
For the next three years, the Congress’s Thanksgiving proclamations and recommendations to the states all referred to the slow steps toward a final peace:
  • 1782: “the present happy and promising state of public affairs; and the events of the war in the course of the last year now drawing to a close”
  • 1783: “hostilities have ceased, and we are left in the undisputed possession of our liberties and independence, and of the fruits of our own land, and in the free participation of the treasures of the sea”
  • 1784: “a general pacification hath taken place, and particularly a Definitive Treaty of peace between the said United States of America and his Britannic Majesty, was signed at Paris, on the 3d day of September, in the year of our Lord 1783; the instruments of the final ratifications of which were exchanged at Passy, on the 12th day of May, in the year of our Lord 1784, whereby a finishing hand was put to the great work of peace, and the freedom, sovereignty and independence of these states, fully and completely established”
And then the Continental Congress stopped recommending Thanksgivings. From 1785 to the advent of the new federal government, there were no national Thanksgiving proclamations.

In those years the Congress had difficulty completing normal business, going for long periods without a quorum. The external crisis had passed, and people disagreed about solutions to the internal difficulties. And the Congress delegates might have felt that with independence won Americans had both less to wish for and less to be thankful for.

The image above is one page of the Congress’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1781, signed for that legislature by Thomas McKean and Charles Thomson and now owned by the Rosenbach museum and library. The texts of all the Congress’s proclamations have been shared by the Pilgrim Hall Museum.holiday

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