Paul L. Caron

Thursday, November 23, 2023

WaPo: Why Thomas Jefferson Hated Thanksgiving

Washington Post, Did Thomas Jefferson hate Thanksgiving?:

Thanksgiving didn’t become an annual national holiday until the days of Abraham Lincoln, but at the time of the nation’s founding, religious feasts (and fasts) of thanksgiving were a regular thing. Both the Continental Congress and Gen. George Washington declared days of public thanksgiving during the Revolutionary War after big victories. And in 1779, Virginia’s wartime governor, Thomas Jefferson, signed a proclamation declaring Thursday, Dec. 9, “a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.”

But decades later, when Jefferson was president, he had turned against thanksgiving proclamations — privately complaining about them before publicly condemning them toward the end of his term. ...

Politicians, scholars, jurists and Americans in general have been fighting ever since about how powerful the federal government should or should not be. ... Things got bitter fast and erupted during the presidential election of 1800 (see track 42 of the “Hamilton” soundtrack). Smear campaigns abounded, with many accusing Jefferson, the eventual victor, of being an atheist. ...

Jefferson wasn’t an atheist, but he still held theological ideas considered radical for his day. Though he believed in a benevolent creator, he questioned biblical miracles, divine intervention and the Christian trinity. He crafted his own version of the New Testament, studied other religious texts like the Quran, and in a famous 1802 letter to persecuted Baptists in Danbury, Conn., promised the group his protection.

Mostly, he thought a person’s religion was a private matter, which fit neatly with the Democratic Republican dismissal of presidential proclamations of thanksgiving as a stuffy, morally dubious holdover from the British monarchy, according to historian James H. Hutson.

After all, these thanksgiving proclamations, which had continued under presidents Washington and Adams, weren’t calls for turkey and stuffing, family travel or for everyone to go around in a circle and say what they were thankful for. They were orders, or at least strong suggestions, for people to set aside a day for praying and fasting, and for clergy to deliver sermons on a national theme, one often infused with politics. ...

In his letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson interpreted the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights as “building a wall of separation between church and State.” In a contemporaneous letter, Jefferson told a friend he hoped to use his response to the Baptists, which he knew would be reprinted in newspapers, as a chance to explain his “political tenets” on “why I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did.” ...

His successor, James Madison, would revive the thanksgiving proclamation tradition in 1815, but for the eight years Jefferson was in office, there was no thanksgiving.

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