Forget Squanto. Our current Thanksgiving has its roots in war and commerce.
The earliest American Thanksgivings were harvest festivals, of course, as agricultural societies had always practiced them. Not only were the crops laid in, fall was an excellent time to go out and shoot migrating birds.
There was a parallel tradition of official Fast and Thanksgiving Days, usually proclaimed by colonial governors or other magistrates. These days weren’t tied to the calendar or season, but to events. A drought or a war going badly would prompt the declaration of a Fast Day, wherein the people reflected upon and repented of their sins, in the hope that God would lift whatever plague beset them. A Thanksgiving Day was for public (in church) expressions of thanks for rain, or victory on the battlefield.
The earliest national days of Thanksgiving, proclaimed in 1777 and thereafter, referenced the ongoing or recently concluded Revolutionary War.
James Madison had, in his career as a legislator, believed these national proclamations utterly inappropriate. Presidents, after all, aren’t theologians, and don’t know the mind of God. Thanksgiving for a battlefield victory assumes God is on your side in a conflict, which is a theological determination, and a dubious one. It was particularly tempting to politicians to try to shape the nation’s support for a policy by such subtle means, and Madison hated that mutual contamination of religion and politics.
However, as president, he issued a proclamation at the conclusion of the War of 1812, that “the second Thursday in April next be set apart as a day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor …”
Note the various elements Madison believed we should give thanks for:
No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pursuits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government. In the arduous struggle by which it was attained they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition. During the interval which succeeded He reared them into the strength and endowed them with the resources which have enabled them to assert their national rights and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies. And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.
The expropriation of the continent from the Indians; the growth of jealousy for political rights; a successful war for independence; the expansion of our war-making powers; and another successful war (one that it would be hard to claim was defending any uniquely Christian principles). Without saying so explicitly, the act of giving thanks for these things wraps them in a halo of divine intention and approval.
That’s how civil religion works.
The April Thanksgiving of 1815 is barely remembered even by historians. We do recall that of 1863, because it was in November that President Lincoln directed the nation to give thanks. During “a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” (No mention of the NYC draft riots of that summer, the worst example of war-time disharmony in our history!) Nevertheless, Lincoln went on, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Highest God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
One can barely blame Lincoln for regarding the preservation of the union thus far as something akin to a miracle, and that may have been the last time any president accused the American people of actually sinning, or acknowledged that God was angry with the nation. Still, you can see the mutual contamination of religion by politics, and politics by religion, that Madison had so distrusted (before he became a war president too).
Thanksgiving Day was not a very popular holiday in the former Confederacy after Lincoln had had his hands all over it. Northerners might have missed the sly association of Mr. Lincoln’s policies with the unimpeachable designs of “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God,” but the people Lincoln’s armies and navies were tossing artillery shells at didn’t.
In the years since, the holiday has lost much of this earlier meaning. By allowing Fast Days to disappear, a Thanksgiving Day loses much of its religious essence. We now only acknowledge God for his gifts–the idea that he might be angry with the nation or that it might be sinning–that He’s even watching very closely–is not likely to get admitted by any president, no matter how sincere his faith. (Jimmy Carter got as close as any recent president with his infamous “malaise speech” but even that was drained of all theological content, and is considered a public relations disaster of the first magnitude. Americans want to hear nothing but flattery from their chief executive.)
Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson believed that 9/11 was recompense for our sins, but even their comments–“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen'”–were hopelessly intertwined with their political agendas.
President Bush was having none of that, but his Thanksgiving proclamation that November revealed some intertwining of his own:
“As we recover from the terrible tragedies of September 11, Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful, and fair-minded land. Let us particularly give thanks for … our leaders at every level who have planned and coordinated the myriad of responses needed to address this unprecedented national crisis.” (A leader reminding his subjects to thank God for their leaders! Nice one, Mr. President!) “May Almighty God,” he went on, “who is our refuge and our strength in this time of trouble, watch over our homeland, protect us, and grant us patience, resolve, and wisdom in all that is to come.” Hindsight’s view of the decisions that were made in the subsequent months prompts some skepticism about whether that prayer for “patience, resolve, and wisdom” was answered.
Franklin Roosevelt infamously tinkered with the date, moving it up in the calendar in order to extend the Christmas shopping season. Christmas decorations and sales were believed to be inappropriate until after Thanksgiving (how very quaint!), so a longer shopping season would be a real boost to the economy. But this looked too much like a president doling out favors.
Considering what an outsized role consumer confidence and Christmas spending plays in our national prosperity, perhaps we should be less critical of the nation’s materialism than is our wont. If your vocation has anything to do with the cranberry industry, eg, I suspect you are sincerely thankful that we’ve gotten rid of all those Fast Days, and made the consumption of iconic food items the center of our latest–and shameless–civil religion.
If you’re a college professor whose salary is paid with tuition money paid by parents who earn their living by selling cranberries, turkeys, inflatable snowmen, or cheap plastic Santa Claus figurines, you can give thanks for all that, too.