Thanksgiving traditions are celebrated by millions of families around the nation, it usually involves turkey, pie, mashed potato, yams, and a food coma. Who wouldn’t love this federal holiday? Well, there was one president who refused to endorse the tradition – Thomas Jefferson.
President Jefferson served from 1801-1809. During this time, they had to issue a special proclamation to celebrate any “days of Thanksgiving”. So, when Jefferson became president he stopped declaring the holidays that George Washington and John Adams had, as per History.
In the past, Thanksgiving involved fasting, prayer, and religious ceremonies. Therefore, the reason behind Jefferson’s decision was to do with the separation of church and state. For this, he was accused of being an atheist.
Following backlash from his decision in 1802, he toyed with telling the nation his reasonings but ultimately refrained from doing so. Here’s what he wanted to say…
Thomas Jefferson’s complicated feelings over Thanksgiving
Ever since Thomas Jefferson first declined to mark the day, rumors have circulated; with many wondering why the third president was such a Thanksgiving Grinch. After all, who could be so opposed to a lighthearted holiday?
However, Jefferson’s feelings are slightly more complicated than that, and it’s not that he was opposed to Thanksgiving. More so, he was against state-sponsored religion and made the move in order to separate church and state. Ultimately, it earned him the reputation of being America’s only anti-Thanksgiving president.
However, Jefferson’s complicated feelings towards Thanksgiving are reflected in the fact that he once declared the holiday in 1779 while serving as governor of Virginia. In 1808, he explained he did this because he considered decisions surrounding Thanksgiving to be the responsibility of the states, not the federal government.
Jefferson’s feelings towards Thanksgiving were kept hidden
In Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, he cites the First Amendment – which ironically, he helped write. He wrote: “‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;’ thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State.”
Interestingly, the original draft of the letter was going to explain why he thought declaring days of Thanksgiving was an expression of religion.
This would have given Jefferson the opportunity to share his thoughts with citizens and his stance may have been more understood. Jefferson wrote in the draft to his attorney general Levi Lincoln: “I have long wished to find an occasion to say why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did.”
However, in a turn of events, Levi Lincoln told him that he should reconsider this part of the letter. Levi thought his words might be misinterpreted as a critique of American citizens, who adored the public celebration.
In the end, Thomas Jefferson decided to not include the reference to Thanksgiving from his letter. Instead, he wrote that he believed in “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official federal holiday
Since he never explained himself to the public, Jefferson’s silence led to rumors which swirled for decades. Especially as his successor, James Madison brought back the tradition during his reign which began in 1815, as per National Geographic.
However, Thanksgiving didn’t become an official federal holiday until President Abraham Lincoln made it one in 1863, in response to the Civil War.