The first proclamation of America's first president, under the orders of the first Congress, was one of thanksgiving.
On Oct. 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, to be a day for the people under a new Constitution to give "sincere and humble thanks."
Washington begins: "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 thanksgiving 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."
Washington then lists many things to be thankful for, including "the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted -- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed."
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President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the horrors of the Civil War, took the day of Thanksgiving to a new level. At the request of 74-year-old magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, Lincoln proclaimed on Oct. 3, 1863, that the nation would observe Thanksgiving in all states on the same day -- the last Thursday of November.
Lincoln's proclamation, written by Secretary of State William H. Seward, urges all Americans to join in "thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union."
The National Archives tells us that in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday earlier in November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and boost an economy still reeling from the Depression.
A national outcry ensued and in 1941 Congress wrote Thanksgiving into the law -- to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, where it is now entrenched in American culture and commerce.
Through times of peace, war, plenty and famine, the tenets of Thanksgiving have remained constant. Great and various favors have been conferred upon us, as Washington put it, and that requires a unified and humble gratefulness.