Thanksgiving a ‘Yankee Abolitionist Holiday’

Thanksgiving scenes almost always depict images more reflective of New England than of Dixie, like 1867’s ‘Home to Thanksgiving’ by Currier and Ives (above), Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-00780. The South was slow to accept the holiday, in part because Southerners associated it with abolitionists.

I know an un-Reconstructed fellow in Tennessee who loves to tell me how he regards Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant on par with Hitler and Stalin. A few years ago he informed me he was no longer celebrating Thanksgiving because he learned the national holiday dates to Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation setting the last Thursday of November as a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise.” (In 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress officially changed the date to the fourth Thursday in November.)

Although my un-Reconstructed friend seems to be unaware of it, he is carrying on a Southern tradition that shunned Thanksgiving as a tool of abolitionists even before the Civil War. The Commonwealth of Virginia led the way down that road and, as usual, the rest of the South followed Virginia’s lead. (Apart from the abolitionist thing, Virginia had always contended with Massachusetts for Americans’ hearts and minds, and reportedly when Southerners of the time did observe Thanksgiving they usually did so with religious services rather than with copious food and drink.)

An article in the Omaha Daily Bee, November 21, 1897, noted that “In the south Thanksgiving, as an annual festival, remained practically unknown until, in 1855, the curious Virginia controversy on the question was precipitated.”

The Bee claimed the governor at that time was named Johns—“a patriotic and broad-minded gentleman, who had always entertained a reverence for the Puritan anniversary which was by no means common below Mason and Dixon’s line”—and he urged the state legislature to recognize a Thanksgiving holiday in the Old Dominion, and he offered to immediately issue a proclamation to that effect. The legislature turned him down colder than February. It was left to his successor, Governor Henry A. Wise to issue the proclamation “Johns” had sought.

Wise’s action “caused much angry criticism, and several southern newspapers declared that Thanksgiving was simply ‘a relic of Puritanic bigotry.’ In spite of this the innovation was warmly welcomed,” the Bee maintained, and in 1858—a year after Wise’s proclamation—eight Southern governors followed suit and Thanksgiving became second only to “the glorious Fourth (of July)” in the region.

“The war, however, coming shortly afterward, practically extinguished the popularity of the holiday in Dixie.”

There are elements of truth in the Bee’s buzz but also a great deal of honey-hooey.

There never was a governor of Virginia named Johns; from 1852 to 1856 that position was held by Joseph Johnson, Virginia’s only governor from west of the Alleghenies. He was, in fact, from Harrison County, where his home still stands, in what is now the State of West Virginia, the same county where I was born though none of that has the slightest thing to do with Thanksgiving. (Let’s just leave comments about turkeys alone, shall we?)

Jenny Jarvie’s “In America, there was time when even ‘Thanksgiving’ was a fightin’ word” (Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2017) says Governor Joseph Johnson refused to declare a day of Thanksgiving in 1853, citing “Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the importance of separation of church and state.”

While that may have been his stated reason, I suspect his successor, Henry Wise, was more honest when he described Thanksgiving as a “theatrical national claptrap” and said the holiday “aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.”

And what were those other causes? Primarily, just one. Jarvie quotes James C. Cobb, professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia as saying, “with the whole prospect of a showdown over the expansion of slavery, there was more and more rhetoric coming out of the South charging that Thanksgiving was pretty much a Yankee abolitionist holiday.”

That belief reversed the 1840s trend of Southern governors issuing Thanksgiving proclamations.

The Thanksgiving banner was to a large extent carried by Northern preachers who were linked to the abolition movement. Therefore, any notion of making it a national holiday was obviously an abolitionist plot. That view must have been underlined and placed in ALL CAPS when the “black Republican” president Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation urging all Americans, at home and abroad, to observe the last Thursday in November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father” and to do so “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” Since a great many Northerners had begun to say the war was Heaven’s punishment for permitting the institution of slavery to exist within the United States, Southerners likely saw Lincoln’s words as a coded version of that message.

Elsewhere in the proclamation—which was made on October 3, 1863, exactly 74 years after Virginian George Washington became the first U. S. president to declare a day of Thanksgiving—was a phrase about how the nation’s civil war “has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression (but) peace has been preserved with all nations.” That, too, could have been read by Confederates as “Nanner-nanner-boo-boo, you failed to get the military support from Europe that you expected to help you win this war.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Thanksgiving failed to catch on in the South until after Reconstruction, much the same way that Vicksburg, Mississippi, refused to celebrate the Fourth of July for over a century because the city was surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on that day in 1863. A friend of mine who grew up there said she never knew until she moved elsewhere an entire city could celebrate Independence Day.

By the way, while Lincoln justly gets the credit for establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday, the aforementioned proclamation was written by his secretary of state, William H. Seward, according to Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay, and the original is in Seward’s handwriting.

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