Today people will undoubtedly celebrate Thanksgiving in some fashion across America. But for President John Adams, Thanksgiving was very much an optional holiday.
Thanksgiving celebrations themselves date to the earliest days of New England’s colonies, and they were paired with Fast Days. (New Hampshire observed Fast Day until 1991. But local and colonial governments issued proclamations of the day of Thanksgiving. When the United States came into existence, Thanksgiving proclamations were political hot potatoes. President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, but not without considerable debate in Congress about its appropriateness..
Roger Sherman, U.S. senator from Connecticut, played a key role in persuading the Congress approve the proclamation. Washington then issued a second Thanksgiving proclamation in 1795.
John Adams Thanksgiving
John Adams, during his presidency, declared two days of fasting and thanks giving, in May of 1798 and April of 1799.
“I do hereby recommend accordingly, that Thursday, the 25th day of April next, be observed throughout the United States of America as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” he wrote in his second proclamation. He ordered the citizens to abstain from their secular occupations and to “devote the time to the sacred duties o religion in public and private.” Citizens should think about their offenses against God and implore forgiveness, he wrote.
Adams hoped that “through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions in time to come.” And he recommended that thanksgiving for “the countless favors which He is still continuing to the people of the United States, and which render their condition as a nation eminently happy when compared with the lot of others.”
Church and State
Adams was a New England Puritan, born into the Congregationalist religion. He evolved into a Unitarian, and he felt a civilized society depended on religion.
But in 1800, Thomas Jefferson soundly thumped him when he ran for reelection. Jefferson firmly believed the Constitution prohibited the president from having any role in “intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises.” That included issuing a Thanksgiving proclamation, which Jefferson did not do.
The election of 1800 turned on a number of issues, but later in life Adams concluded his beliefs about religion, and his Thanksgiving proclamation, helped topple him from office. In an 1812 letter to Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush he wrote that his Fast and Thanksgiving proclamations fueled rumors that he belonged to the Presbyterian Church.
“The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of Office,” he wrote to Rush. He argued people connected the holiday with the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which he had nothing to do with. Then he commented on the church’s unpopularity.
“That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Sweedenborgians, Methodist, Catholicks, Protestant Episcopalians, Arians Socinians, Arminians & &c.,” Adams told Rush. You could even add Deists and Atheists to the list, he wrote. Then he explained that “a general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church …aimed at an Establishment as a National Church.”
His political enemies represented him as a Presbyterian who headed the effort to establish a national church. “The Secret Whisper ran through them all the Sects “Let Us have Jefferson Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deist or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President,” he wrote.
“Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion,” Adams concluded.” This wild Letter I very much fear, contains Seeds of an Ecclesiastical History of the U.S. for a Century to come.”
Read Adams’ complete letter here. Years later, President James Madison also issued a Thanksgiving proclamation. But then no president proclaimed the holiday until Abraham Lincoln did in 1863.
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This story about John Adams’ Thanksgiving was updated in 2022.