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    Kutztown University Student Researches True Origins of Thanksgiving

    KUTZTOWN – Emily Sakal, a senior history major from Phoenixville, Pa., conducted research to find the validity of whether or not Thanksgiving truly began with the Pilgrims.

    Sakal’s area of focus was history, more specifically “How Thanksgiving has been celebrated in our history in different regions and at different times”. The research focused on the historical purpose of Thanksgiving as a national celebration was a means to celebrate our national creed of equality, to ask forgiveness for our national sin of slavery. However, this is drastically different from what American society is accustom, where it symbolizes the meal between Pilgrims and Indians.

    Through extensive research, she discovered that the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was a regional tradition in New England, not a national one. Sakal’s research took her to the Library of Congress. After diving into the history of Thanksgiving Day Presidential proclamations it became evident that Presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln never mentioned Pilgrims. Until Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation linked Pilgrims to the origins of the nation.

    In regards to the research, she states that Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving on November 6, 1863 was to celebrate victory and to bring Americans together behind a unified effort. The modern American Thanksgiving holiday dates to Abraham Lincoln and to the Civil War. Its strongest historical link is not to the Pilgrims, but to the goals named in the Declaration of Independence, that Lincoln named in the Gettysburg Address, and that transformed our Constitution in the 14th Amendment. The historical purpose of Thanksgiving as a national celebration was to celebrate our national creed of equality, to ask forgiveness for our national sin of slavery and steel ourselves as a people to the task of atoning for it.

    Consequently, use this Thanksgiving to let society rededicate ourselves to this to this national holiday’s original goals as named in the Declaration of Independence, at Gettysburg, and enshrined in the 14th amendment to the Constitution.

    She concluded, “We are still a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, that’s worth giving thanks for”.

    Dr. Andrew B. Arnold, department professor & Chair of History, assisted Sakal during the research process. However, he elaborated how Sakal weeded through several obstacles before the true origins of Thanksgiving surfaced.

    The KU BEARS program is an excellent opportunity to do funded research that otherwise wouldn’t be affordable to the average college student.

    The purpose of the KU BEARS program is to support faculty/student research pairs over the summer. The goals are twofold: to develop the necessary skills set of undergraduate students to help them become student researchers and to provide faculty members with paid student research assistants.

    November, 1863, Thanksgiving and the Gettysburg Address

    Author: Andrew B. Arnold, Ph.d.

    The modern American Thanksgiving holiday dates to Abraham Lincoln and to the Civil War. It’s strongest historical link is not to the Pilgrims, but to the goals named in the Declaration of Independence, that Lincoln named in the Gettysburg Address, and that transformed our Constitution in the 14th Amendment. The historical purpose of Thanksgiving as a national celebration was to celebrate our national creed of equality, to ask forgiveness for our national sin of slavery and steel ourselves as a people to the task of atoning for it.

    The modern American Thanksgiving is no more connected with Pilgrims and Indians than it is with any of the innumerable days of Thanksgiving and prayer declared by Americans throughout our history. The Pilgrim Thanksgiving was a regional New England tradition, not a national one. Americans often held formal days of Thanksgiving throughout our history. We gave thanks for auspicious events, and to bring ourselves together as a people for greater effort. We have held such events in all seasons.

    Nor of course did the Pilgrims hold the first North American Thanksgiving celebration. Jamestown, Virginia residents held a Thanksgiving in 1619. St. Augustine Florida may perhaps lay claim to the first European-American Thanksgiving on September 8, 1565. It doesn’t matter. Neither is the Thanksgiving that we celebrate today.

    For George Washington in 1789 the first national Thanksgiving under the Constitution was a chance to give thanks for the miracle of the Founding. His proclamation gave thanks for the nation’s success in winning the Revolutionary War and in establishing the new government. He likely remembered other days of Thanksgiving during the Revolution. Washington’s proclamation did not mention the Pilgrims. He next proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in February 1795. Presidents after James Madison stopped issuing such proclamations because of a concern that they violated the separation of church and state.

    Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation in fall 1863 was different. It began our national tradition and was part of the massive shift in the war aims of the United States. The national government under Lincoln entered the war with conservative war aims: to preserve the union as it was. By 1863 however, the nation had moved beyond conservative aims. Lincoln put the Emancipation Proclamation into effect that year. He delivered his Gettysburg Address a week before the new national Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day sermons echoed his calls for an end to slavery and recollected Americans to the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

    Thanksgiving and Gettysburg announced what had become evident in many places already: The nation’s war aims were now focused on the eradication of slavery.

    Today’s national Thanksgiving tradition dates to October 3, 1863. On that day Lincoln issued his national Thanksgiving Day Proclamation for the traditional period when states typically held their celebrations. (Thanksgiving was celebrated in most states sometime in the fall by proclamation of each governor.) He listed the blessings of the past year, despite the ongoing Civil War. “[T]he country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

    In the few years after Lincoln’s assassination the nation sought to Reconstruct itself along the lines of racial equality and to enshrine that goal in our Constitution. The 13th Amendment ended slavery. The 14th Amendment committed the national government to ensuring liberty and equality for all Americans in every state in the union. The 15th Amendment guaranteed the vote to all American men regardless of race.

    Thanksgiving lost its association with the New Birth of Freedom with the end of the 1870s and the end of Reconstruction. Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations drifted away from the connection between Thanksgiving and the end of slavery. Lincoln hoped in the Gettysburg address that “these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” When Reconstruction ended, American Presidents began to associate Thanksgiving with reconciliation between North and South President Chester A. Arthur in 1882 gave thanks in his Proclamation for “the increasing friendship between the different sections of the land.”

    President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation linked the Pilgrims to the origins of the nation and therefore to Thanksgiving. “The custom has now become national and hallowed by immemorial usage.” Of course Teddy Roosevelt’s history was partially correct: Americans had long held days of Thanksgiving. But his history was wrong in the ways that matter most: The yearly Thanksgiving holiday had become national and a subject for Presidential Proclamation as part of the Civil War and the New Birth of Freedom.

    The American tradition of Thanksgiving is not only one of giving thanks, but of uniting ourselves as a people to achieve the difficult national goals named in our founding documents. Lincoln did not proclaim Thanksgiving in 1863 to celebrate victory so much as to bring us together for a unified effort. He sought to align the North’s war aims with those of the Declaration of Independence.

    Our gains in equality remain areas of justifiable pride for Americans. We have much to give thanks for. But we still fall short of those ideals.

    To understand the history of Thanksgiving is to truly celebrate the history of our nation and of our Constitution. To understand the U.S. Constitution’s history is to commemorate not only its origins in the post-Revolutionary moment in 1787, but also its transformation through the Civil War, our national amnesia during the Jim Crow era, and the revival of our commitment to equality through the Civil Rights era that continues today.

    This Thanksgiving let us rededicate ourselves to this national holiday’s original goals as named in the Declaration of Independence, at Gettysburg, and enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Let us steel ourselves to pursue them still. We are still a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That’s worth giving thanks for.

    Author: Andrew B. Arnold, Phd, Chair of History Department at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Author of A Pocket Guide to the U.S. Constitution, (Georgetown University Press, 2nd Ed., April 2018) Article written with research assistance from Emily Sakal, a History Major at Kutztown University.

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