THE BLOG
11/25/2013 08:08 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

A Big Helping of Thanksgiving Politics for All

Millions of Americans will travel home for Thanksgiving this year, and millions of the same Americans will get into heated political discussions at some point during the festivities. Most of these political discussions will wind up convincing nobody, because the whole point of them is (at heart) to casually ridicule other members of your family -- you could just as easily tease each other about who you went to the prom with or some other event from your past. The net result is the same. Liberals will travel to heartland towns and be called tree-hugging bleeding hearts (or worse) and conservatives will travel to cosmopolitan settings and be called heartless hicks and hayseeds (or worse), and everyone will then happily decamp to the living room to watch football.

Some decry this state of events or even offer advice as to "how to speak to your (liberal/conservative) relatives to really convince them" -- which ignores the underlying point (which is, again, teasing your family members as if you were all 12 years old once again). Uncle Steve or Cousin Samantha aren't going to ever be convinced you are right, sorry.

That's a fairly cynical take on the annual "city slickers dine with country folk" dinner table political debate, I admit. Instead, I'll be slightly less cynical and point out what virtually everyone misses in this fracas: the fact that Thanksgiving has -- since the very beginning of our country -- been inextricably tied together with politics. American Thanksgiving proclamations were nothing short of political spin and cheap political gimmickry from the very start. So today's tame (by comparison) discussions with your kin are indeed nothing new at all -- they are mere ghosts of the political heavy-handedness of the past. Even the eternal tug-of-war between religiosity and crass consumerism has roots far older than most realize.

We're going to skip over all the debate surrounding the history of "the first Thanksgiving" and jump forward to the American Revolution (with a side note that most of the facts in this article come from Wikipedia, where you can read a more complete rundown of the holiday's history, all the way back to the beginning). "Days of thanksgiving" were a common gimmick of the rebels, during both the lead-up to the war and the war itself. They'd issue proclamations for this day or that, and they loaded them up with political fire.

The first time an American government issued a "National Proclamation of Thanksgiving" was in 1777. It included, in the first paragraph: "And it having pleased him [Almighty God] in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success." George Washington looked upon the 1777 day of thanksgiving as a celebration of a recent rebel military victory, in fact. This proclamation also ended with: "And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion."

The merchant class didn't cotton to the idea, because it meant closing down business for a day, and thus halting the flow of commerce. The holiday was not universally observed. Days of thanksgiving were (on one level) just a sneaky attempt to get the public behind one political idea, and there were years where more than one such day were proclaimed. But many who lived here in 1777 didn't agree with the rebels and therefore just ignored such a blatantly political move from a congress they didn't see as legitimate, and as mentioned many merchants just didn't want to give their employees a day off.

The idea of a religious holiday observing the bounties of the harvest proceeded haphazardly in the following decades. Sometimes the day of thanksgiving was at harvest time, sometimes it wasn't. Some presidents proclaimed such days, some didn't. Some states observed the holiday (often on different days), some didn't.

Which leads to the biggest politicization of the holiday yet. This year, we will in fact celebrate the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving as a holiday the whole country observes at the same time. This is because President Abraham Lincoln decided we needed a national holiday instead of it being celebrated so haphazardly. Lincoln was reportedly influenced by editorials written by a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, but he was also influenced by a need for Americans to think of themselves as Americans. If that sounds odd today, it most certainly did not in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln had just given the Gettysburg Address a few weeks earlier, after all. Lincoln was looking to bind the country together in a mythos or idealized vision of the United States as a whole, and Thanksgiving was one of the ways he sought to do so. Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation was heavy on what would (today) be called "political spin" of the nakedest sort. Here's just one passage:

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled 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. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

Lincoln then goes on to reveal his real purpose, giving thanks "as with one heart and voice by the whole American people." Which was, in the midst of the Civil War, itself a political statement. Lincoln begs "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience" later on in the document (which was actually drafted by William Seward), which was also a partisan "our side is in the right, the other side is clearly wrong, in the eyes of God" sort of provocation, seen one way. Of course, since the Civil War was still raging on, Thanksgiving wouldn't truly be celebrated as a national holiday until Reconstruction, because the South certainly wasn't following Lincoln's proclamations at the time.

Thanksgiving didn't become contentious and politicized again until Franklin Roosevelt's time in office. This time, it wasn't so much raw politics as it was Thanksgiving being used as a political football (which is actually an appropriate metaphor, since football and Thanksgiving have been traditionally associated all the way back to the late 1800s). At issue was crass consumerism, believe it or not.

From Lincoln's time to the F.D.R. era, Thanksgiving had been celebrated on the "last Thursday in November." But in 1939, Roosevelt changed this to the "fourth Thursday in November" -- to give the stores (still suffering from the Great Depression) another week of Christmas shopping season to enjoy. The year was one where there were five Thursdays in November instead of four, but because the idea came from Roosevelt (who was an incredibly polarizing political figure), Republicans were against it. There were really two Thanksgivings that year -- the "Republican Thanksgiving" and the "Democratic Thanksgiving" (or even "Franksgiving"). Roughly half of the states celebrated one, roughly half celebrated the other, and a few even celebrated both as holidays. This sounds perversely partisan, and it was -- Republicans were against pretty much anything Roosevelt was for, in knee-jerk fashion (sound familiar?). This fight continued for the next two years, with Roosevelt proclaiming the third Thursday in November (in years with only four on the calendar) to be Thanksgiving.

By 1941, Roosevelt had gotten Congress to pass a "fourth Thursday" bill, which is where the holiday remains on the calendar today. In most years, this means the last Thursday of the month, but last year was one of the overlap years, and Thanksgiving was celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month instead of the last one.

What all of this means is that proclamations of Thanksgiving have been politicized on more than one occasion in our nation's history. During the Revolution, they were intended to whip up fervor for the war in the populace. Abraham Lincoln created a federal holiday to remind Northerners what they were fighting for in the Civil War -- a united country. Franklin Roosevelt wanted Big Business to have an extended Christmas shopping season, to bolster the economy. Thanksgiving, while sold as a purely religious sort of holiday, has always had implications in the worlds of politics and economics.

So if, this week, you get tired of those yapping political idiots who happen to share your familial bloodline, please remember that arguing about politics isn't some sort of distraction from the holiday, but it has been part of the holiday since our country was born. Brother fought brother on American soil not only in the Civil War but also during the Revolution. Our biggest arguments have always happened within our own American family, in fact.

Even the appropriateness of rushing out to shop on Black Friday (or even... shudder... Thanksgiving itself) is a political argument that really started during the Revolution. The holiday has political overtones that most have now forgotten, in fact. That doesn't detract from all the good things about such a national observance, though -- of which there are plenty (and which we should indeed be thankful for). Whatever its origins, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, through and through. Yes, Canada also celebrates such a holiday, but harvest festivals have been celebrated for thousands of years by a vast array of different cultures. Which is also approximately how long heated political discussions have happened when extended families get together, as well.

Waving a turkey leg around as you berate your uncle or cousin for their backward and dangerous political views is not some sort of modern-day invention. Instead, I see it as an integral part of the holiday's history. And (no matter which side of that turkey leg you find yourself on this Thursday) this is well worth remembering, because it's a good way to politely end such arguments as the pie is being served for dessert. Everyone of every political stripe can agree on the simple fact that we've been having these sorts of arguments across the American political spectrum (even within our own families) for a very long time indeed.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

ChrisWeigant.com

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