Thanksgiving Day

In his first presidential proclamation, George Washington designated November 26, 1789 as a Day of National Thanksgiving. The next president to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation was Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863, also designated November 26. In October of his third year in office, Lincoln invited Americans to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise.”

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th. day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.

George Washington, October 3, 1789, Thanksgiving. Series 8, Miscellaneous Papers ca. 1775-99, Subseries 8A, Correspondence and Miscellaneous Notes. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division

Thanksgiving was practiced in America by early English colonists. In a letter dated September 4, 1619, Sir William Throckmorton, Richard Bearkley, George Thorpe, and John Smyth gave Captain John Woodlief various orders, including one for an annual religious observance of thanksgiving at the newly established Berkeley Hundred plantation in Virginia.

Impr[imatur] wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for planta[tion] in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetualy keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.

Sir William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, et al. Ordinances Direccons and Instructions to Captaine John Woodlefe. September 4, 1619. In The Records of the Virginia Company of London. Volume III, p. 207. Series 8: Virginia Records Manuscripts. Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827. Manuscript Division

The origin of the American Thanksgiving tradition of feasting, though, is generally credited to the Pilgrims. As early as 1621, the Puritan colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts set aside a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest. Throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, official days of feasting and fasting commemorated periods of good and poor fortune.

By the honourable Gurdon Saltonstall, Esq; Governour of His Majesty’s Colony of Connecticut in New-England, a proclamation for a publick thanksgiving… New-London: Printed by Timothy Green, printer to his honour the governour and company, 1721. Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

When Boston Harbor was closed in retribution for the Boston Tea Party, for example, Massachusetts authorities declared a fast day. The Virginia House of Burgesses ordered fasting in support of the Bay Colony. Complying with the proclamation, on June 1, 1774, George Washington noted in his diary, “Went to Church and fasted all day.”

Most early Thanksgiving days were spontaneous celebrations. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, an annual fall Thanksgiving meal was customary throughout much of the United States and its Territories. During the gold rush, miners far from home observed a day of thanks. On December 1, 1850, Alfred T. Jackson of Litchfield County, Connecticut described his California Thanksgiving.

Although there was nothing to show it, we observed Thursday as Thanksgiving, as that was the legal day in the States. All we did was to lay off and eat quail stew and dried apple pie. I thought a lot about the old folks and would like to have been home with them, and I guess I will be next year…

The Diary of a Forty-Niner, ed. by Chauncey L. Canfield. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin company, 1920. “California As I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections

For more than a decade, writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale pushed for an annual day of national Thanksgiving. From the helm of several prominent women’s magazines, Hale editorialized about the importance of a national Thanksgiving celebration. She also wrote to President Lincoln directly. On October 3, 1863, in the wake of Union victory at the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln decided to issue his first Thanksgiving Proclamation; his second followed in 1864. The President’s Hymn, composed in honor of the new holiday, rang out across the nation.

Give thanks, all ye people, give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluias of freedom with joyful accord:
Let the East and the West, North and South roll along,
Sea, mountain and prairie, One thanksgiving song.

The President’s Hymn. William Augustus Muhlenberg, words; J.W. Turner, music; Boston, Mass: Oliver Ditson & co., c1863. The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

A Butcher Shop Window At Thanksgiving Time, Norwich, Connecticut. Jack Delano photographer, Nov. 1940. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Since Lincoln in 1863, every President of the United States has issued an annual Thanksgiving Proclamation, each citing a specific date. While most proclaimed Thanksgiving for the fourth or last Thursday of November, Franklin D. Roosevelt chose the third Thursdays of November 1939 through 1941, for economic reasons. Late in 1941, Congress passed Thanksgiving legislation that Roosevelt signed into law on December 26, 1941. Public Law 77-379 set Thanksgiving Days from 1942 onward to the fourth Thursday in November. The law also made Thanksgiving Day an annual Federal Holiday.

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Sojourner Truth

Preacher, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan on November 26, 1883. The date of Truth’s birth is uncertain, but around 1797 she was born into slavery and called “Isabella” in Ulster, New York. Bought and sold four times, she escaped slavery in 1826 when her owner failed to fulfill his promise to free her before the date mandated by New York law.

Sojourner Truth… [Detroit, 1864]. Free to Use and Reuse: Women’s History Month. Prints & Photographs Division

But we’ll have our rights; see if we don’t: and you can’t stop us from them; see if you can. You may hiss as much as you like, but it is comin’.

Sojourner Truth, Address to the Woman’s Rights Convention. In Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention Held at the Broadway Tabernacle…New York, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 6th and 7th, 1853. New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1853. p.77 National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Nearly twenty years later, she shed the name Isabella Van Wagener, and adopted the moniker Sojourner Truth. A prophet and sojourning minister, she spoke out against sin and slavery. Encouraged by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she added the cause of women’s rights to her agenda. Today, Truth is most famous for her speech “Ain’t I A Woman.” She attacked the idea of the “weaker sex” reportedly saying:

I have plowed, I have planted and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much, and eat as much as man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?

Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I A Woman,” Address to 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.

A. Lincoln Showing Sojourner Truth the Bible Presented by Colored People of Baltimore, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., Oct. 29, 1864. c1893. Photograph of a painting. Presidents of the United States: Selected Images From the Collections of the Library of Congress. Prints & Photographs Division

When the Civil War began, Truth organized supplies for black volunteer troops. In 1864, President Lincoln received her at the White House. That same year, she advised former slaves on behalf of the National Freedmen’s Relief Association. She continued to offer advice in the 1870s, encouraging African Americans to migrate to the western states of Kansas and Missouri.

Truth managed to reunite with most of her children. Three daughters joined her in Battle Creek, Michigan where she settled in the 1850s. When she died at age eighty-six, her funeral at the Congregational Church was thought to be the largest ever seen in that city.

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Rick’s Place

The film Casablanca opened in New York City on November 26, 1942, as Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF) secured their hold on North Africa during World War II. Casablanca, Morocco’s chief port city, was the setting of the film.

In the film, the hero Rick Blaine settles in Casablanca after fighting fascism in Spain. When his former lover, Ilsa, arrives at his café with her French Resistance-leader husband, Rick helps them escape. By film’s end, Rick and Ilsa take leave of each other to serve a greater good—freedom from fascism.

Casablanca Conference at Casablanca, French Morocco, Africa. The “unconditional surrender” announcement…. U.S. Army Signal Corps, Jan. 1943. Prints & Photographs Division

During “Operation Torch”—the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942—Casablanca was bombarded under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower. The city served as the site of the Casablanca Conference from January 14-24, 1943. Attended by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and French Resistance leaders Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud, the Allied leadership developed a unified military strategy and decided that Germany, Italy, and Japan must surrender unconditionally. Russian leader Joseph Stalin declined to attend the conference.

Just as the Allied invasion of Casablanca advanced box office sales of the film Casablanca, so did the movie reinforce the war effort by underscoring the value of freedom and the importance of personal sacrifice. As Variety noted on December 2, 1942, “Casablanca will take the b.o.’s [box offices] of America just as swiftly and certainly as the AEF took North Africa.” Casablanca‘s national release was scheduled to coincide with the Casablanca Conference.

Miscellaneous building interiors. Theater Lobby V. ca 1920-50. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Casablanca was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay of 1943. In 1989, Casablanca was placed on the National Film Registry of the National Film Preservation Board.

The Veterans History Project collection of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has first-hand accounts of American war veterans. Listen to American servicemen and servicewomen recount their experiences in Casablanca during World War II.

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  • Learn more about the Veterans History Project program.
  • The Library of Congress preserves films deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” through the National Film Preservation Board. Each year, the board adds twenty-five films to the National Film Registry. View a list of films selected to the National Film Registry. A selection of these films can be viewed in the collection Selections from the National Film Registry.
  • Learn more about the media and World War II. See Women Come to the Front. This online exhibition showcases eight women who reported on World War II from a variety of locations and perspectives.
  • Find out what happened when the Marx Brothers wanted to make their own film entitled Casablanca. Read “Gala Launches Bicentennial” in the October 1997 Library of Congress Information Bulletin.
  • View images of the U.S. before and during World War II. Browse the subject index of Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives on World War. Photographers produced over 1,600 color photographs during the latter days of the FSA/OWI project many depicting the war effort on the home front.