A Little Thanksgiving Day Trivia via Legislative History Records

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The law library wishes all UNC Law students, faculty, and staff a very Happy Thanksgiving!

If you want to really impress your friends and family over dinner this year, trying using these federal legislative history materials to highlight a few lesser-known facts about this beloved holiday.

Interesting Fact #1: In 1789, the first Congress worried that a public day of thanksgiving was un-American.

We take it for granted that Thanksgiving Day is a quintessentially American holiday, complete with family, friends, and good food. However, members of the first Congress were worried that a federally recognized day of thanksgiving was un-American and inappropriate!

We can confirm their qualms with the idea of a public day of thanksgiving by looking back at the Annals of the Congress of the United States, a precursor to the Congressional Record. On Friday, September 25, 1789, Rep. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey introduced a joint resolution before the House recommending “to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” 1 Annals of Cong. 914 (1789). You can view the original entry here:

Image of 1 Annals of Congress 914-15 (September 25, 1789)

In response to this joint resolution, two representatives from South Carolina strongly objected. Rep. Aedanus Burke said he “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgiving.” He was joined in his resistance by Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker, who thought “the House had no business to interfere in a matter which did not concern them. Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” Id. at 915.

Despite these protestations, the resolution passed. President Washington announced a public day of thanksgiving to take place on Thursday, November 26, 1789. It was the first national celebration of Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America.

Interesting Fact #2: From 1939-1941, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving Day on different dates in November depending on their state of residence.  

Prior to 1939, presidents set the date for the Thanksgiving Day holiday via proclamation, but most usually followed President Lincoln’s lead and fixed the date as the last Thursday in November. However, during the last days of the Great Depression in 1939, the traditional date for Thanksgiving Day landed on the fifth Thursday of the month, and businesses were concerned that the shortened holiday shopping season would further hurt their revenue for the year. In response to these concerns, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to issue a proclamation moving the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November.

Congressional Record from November 3, 1939

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), this proved unpopular with some state governors, who chose to ignore the President’s proclamation and fix the date for the Thanksgiving Day holiday on the traditional final Thursday of the month. From 1939-1941, sixteen states celebrated the Thanksgiving Day holiday on the final Thursday in November, while thirty-two states followed the President’s proclamation and celebrated the holiday on the fourth Thursday in November.

You can see evidence of this split in the Congressional Record, which records the debates in both the House and Senate. In 1939, the President sent Congress a holiday message that highlighted the differing dates controversy.

In the message, President Roosevelt extended his “best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving and a merry Christmas. May I add that I hope those Members from States whose Governors have set November 30 as Thanksgiving Day will celebrate both Thanksgivings – the 23d and the 30th.” 76 Cong. Rec. 1397 (Nov. 3, 1939).

President Roosevelt certainly had a sense of humor about the issue, but the problem of differing celebration dates continued over the next few years. Ultimately, Congress had to step in and formalize the celebration via legislation, thus bringing all states in line with the federal holiday.

Interesting Fact #3: The 77th Congress passed legislation recognizing Thanksgiving Day as a legal public holiday and scheduled it to fall on the fourth Thursday of November.

In response to the multiple Thanksgiving Day celebrations of 1939-41, Congress took legislative action to formally fix the date and recognize Thanksgiving Day as a federal holiday. House Joint Resolution 41, passed by Congress on December 9, 1941, ended the debacle of various states celebrating the holiday on different days.

House Joint Resolution 41 (Dec. 9, 1941)

The Senate made the final amendment to the joint resolution, “[a]mending the title so as to read: ‘Joint resolution making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday.’” Congress thus made Thanksgiving Day an official federal holiday, and the saga of the different Thanksgiving Day celebrations ended.  

Posted by Melissa M. Hyland on Mon. November 25, 2019 9:00 AM
Categories: Uncategorized

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