Which US president refused to recognize Thanksgiving?

Bruno Cooke November 22, 2022
Which US president refused to recognize Thanksgiving?
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Thanksgiving, one of the United States’ favorite federal holidays, is fast approaching, but there’s one high profile American who famously refused to recognize it. It was a president, too.

Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November. People outside the States sometimes call it American Thanksgiving, so as to be able to tell it apart from the Canadian holiday of the same name.

Originally a harvest festival, Thanksgiving is now as much a prelude to the festival of consumerism that is Black Friday as it is about celebrating the bounty of the Earth.

Its current status notwithstanding, the history of Thanksgiving offers some interesting titbits. Pub quizzers, start your engines.

Happy African American girl holding ‘I’m thankful’ sign and looking at camera during Thanksgiving meal with her parents.

Which US president refused to recognize Thanksgiving, and why?

Thomas Jefferson famously refused to endorse the tradition. 

For him, supporting it meant supporting state-sponsored religion too. After all, Thanksgiving has roots in Puritan religious traditions. Early observances had to do with days of humiliation and active giving of thanks, and Jefferson was not about that.

He believed in the separation of church and state. Jefferson affirmed this in his second inaugural address in 1805, available to read in his own handwriting.

“I have therefore undertaken,” he said, “on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”

Why did president Jefferson’s refuse to recognize Thanksgiving?

In 1801, a Baptist group from Connecticut wrote to Jefferson. They wanted him to confirm that the state would protect their religious liberties.

In response, Jefferson wrote a draft letter explaining that, to him, declaring fasts and/or days of thanksgiving amounted to expressions of religion. He opposed them because they were “remnants of Britain’s reign over the American colonies,” according to a Library of Congress blogpost on the presidential history of Thanksgiving. He never actually sent this version of the letter, but a record of it exists.

He reiterated his belief in a “wall of separation between church and state.”

Having a federal holiday of thanksgiving, which is rooted in traditions of Christian puritanism, ran contrary to Thomas Jefferson’s ideology. He therefore “ignored” it, per a Nogales International newspaper article from 1939. He held that religious observances “had no place in activities of the state.”

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Did Jefferson ever declare Thanksgiving?

Ironically, yes. Thomas Jefferson declared a Thanksgiving while serving as governor of Virginia, in 1779. But, as the LoC blogpost mentioned above explains, he later said he was willing to do so as governor but not as president. 

Endorsing such a federal holiday would stand in conflict with the First Amendment, he thought. And besides, he considered days of thanksgiving to be the responsibility of individual states, not the federal government. 

“I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of public and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God,” he announced on November 20, 1779.

He officially recommended people “set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion.”

Was he a Christian?

Yes, although the Monticello Organisation’s text on Jefferson’s religious beliefs advises exercising “caution” when categorising them.

Thomas Jefferson was baptised and raised Anglican. Anglican ministers married him, and buried him. And he declared himself publicly to be a Christian.

Monticello says the following: he was a theist who rejected the Trinity. In other words, a Unitarian. He never formally joined that church, but once declared that he “confidently” expected his contemporary generation to “see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.”

“I am a Christian,” he declared in April 1803, “in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be.” By which he meant: “sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.