Monday, November 4, 2019

On Display in the State Library

This November, the State Library is exhibiting a Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, issued by Governor John Hancock on November 8, 1783. Printed as broadside and distributed throughout the Commonwealth to notify citizens of the upcoming observance, this document established Thursday, December 11 as a day for all Massachusetts residents to devote themselves to prayer and giving thanks.

The day of thanksgiving established by John Hancock and his council in 1783 is different from the Thanksgiving holiday that we know of today. During his presidency, George Washington issued a proclamation for a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, as did subsequent presidents like John Adams and James Madison. But Thanksgiving was not established as a federal holiday until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in 1863, and it was not until 1941 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date as the last Thursday in November. Prior to Washington’s proclamation in 1789, church leaders or governors of individual colonies (and then states) would periodically declare days of thanksgiving and prayer for a variety of reasons. Most frequently, these days celebrated a bountiful harvest and were very religious in nature, which is reflected in the proclamation’s wording of giving thanks to the “Almighty Being” and “Bountiful Benefactor.” During the Revolutionary War, proclamations also drew a strong connection between religion and military affairs, as days of thanksgiving were often established to give praise to God after the colonists achieved a victory against the British.

When Gov. John Hancock issued the Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving in November 1783, he was following a recommendation made by the Congress of the Confederation (the precursor to the United States Congress) that all thirteen states observe an especially significant event. That year marked the official end of the Revolutionary War, when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3 and Great Britain acknowledged the United States as free, sovereign, and independent states. Following the conclusion of a war that began eight years prior, Congress requested that all states establish Thursday, December 11 as a day of thanksgiving and prayer. The language of the proclamation was set by Congress, though it appears as though various states edited their own versions slightly. The Massachusetts proclamation reads that citizens should give thanks “that he [creator] hath been pleased to conduct us in safety through all the perils and vicissitudes of the war; that he hath given us unanimity and resolution to adhere to our just rights; that he hath raised up a powerful ally to assist us in supporting them, and hath so far crowned our united efforts with success, that in the course of the present year hostilities have ceased, and we are left in the undisputed possession of our liberties and independence.”

Though our current Thanksgiving holiday is not the same as colonial days of thanksgiving and prayer, it does have its roots there. Today, we may not be celebrating the specific events that colonial citizens did, but we do share their observance of giving thanks for a bountiful year, successful events, and general well-being. This proclamation urged citizens to “assemble to celebrate with grateful hearts and united voices,” a sentiment that continues today, much as it did well over two hundred years ago.

Through December 1, be sure to visit the State Library to see this proclamation in person. Click here to view it in our digital repository and explore other Thanksgiving proclamations issued by various governors here.

By Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian