The Profound Ambivalences of Thanksgiving ; Part I:  Jefferson on an American ‘Tradition’

(in two parts)

 Los Angeles, Fourth Thursday of November 2019

As an immigrant with a certain political sensibility, I have always been filled with ambivalence towards Thanksgiving—and that is putting it mildly.  July 4th doubtless has a more honored place on the American calendar in many respects, but Thanksgiving has long appeared to most people as the quintessential American holiday.  It was a religious celebration before it became a holiday and its history predates by more than 150 years the founding of the Republic.  Most holidays (of this kind) are full of good cheer, but Thanksgiving is much more than that, and not only because the Thanksgiving table is overflowing with food and that one eats to one’s fill—and more.  Thanksgiving appears to endorse a more democratic conception of what it means to be American:  thus, as an illustration, we may witness a 3-star General, or the Vice President, serving Thanksgiving meals to soldiers stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Thanksgiving, I was long inclined to believe, was that one day when the foreign student in the US was positively supposed to feel welcome and find herself invited to an American home.  On this singular occasion, at least, fellowship and conviviality often seemed to triumph over race, religion, and identity politics more generally.


Norman Rockwell, “Freedom From Want” (source:  Wikipedia)

My conflicted feelings towards Thanksgiving arise from far more than the fact that turkey is scarcely the most delectable of all meats, an opinion that is rather widely shared even if some people are, for reasons of sentimentality or political correctness, unwilling to go public with their view, especially on Thanksgiving Day.  But one may put this down to matters of taste and therefore relegate the question of the wholesomeness of the comestibles under which the traditional Thanksgiving Table groans to the sidelines, considering that the rather more stern misgivings about Thanksgiving which I now propose to delve into (especially in the second part of the essay) will be even less palatable to many readers.  There is, to begin with, the matter of the conflicted status of Thanksgiving as a secular holiday.  Thomas Jefferson was the principal architect of the idea of the separation of church from state, and it is his singularity as well that he appears to have been the only American president, at least among the presidents with wide recognition, to openly decry the public celebration of Thanksgiving.

Jefferson’s reservations against Thanksgiving are best understood in an exchange of views he had with Baptists. Congress had declared a national day of Thanksgiving after the American triumph of arms at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, but in the years following Thanksgiving was associated with fasting and prayer more so than with bountiful meals.  Sometime in late December 1801, in the first year of his first term as President of the United States, some Baptists wrote to him from Connecticut to express their concern that the state’s constitution did not have a specific provision safeguarding the freedom of worship and religious expression.  Was Jefferson, as President, they wanted to know, prepared to assure that they would have religious liberty? In reply, Jefferson wrote to express his firm conviction that no legislature of American people ought to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” His brief letter continues in this vein, pointing to his conviction that declarations of thanksgiving were expressions of religion; however, as the editors of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press, 2009) note, he omitted from his draft reply a passage which, he was informed by friends, “might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings &c by their Executive is an antient habit, & is respected.”  On Jan 1, 1802, addressing one Mr. Lincoln of the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson began with the observation that he was “averse” to receiving addresses, but was “unable to prevent them”; and so he sought to make the best use of each such occasion to sow “useful truths & principles among the people”, and on this occasion found it apt to explain “why [he] did not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did” (Vol 36, pp. 256-7).

That Jefferson was not averse to Thanksgiving as such becomes clear from a letter he penned to the Rev. Samuel Miller in 1808, during the second term of his presidency.  Here his argument is made to rest on a different consideration:  while affirming that the Constitution forbid the “government of the US” from meddling “with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines, or exercises”, Jefferson noted that the Constitution reserved “to the states powers not delegated to the U.S.”  It was then a matter best left to each state:  “Fasting & prayer are religious exercises.  The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them . . . and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.”  Thus, as Governor of Virginia, Jefferson had no qualms about declaring, as he did on 11 November 1779, “A Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer”; however, as President of the United States of America, he could do no such thing without violating the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold.


(to be concluded)






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