Friday, October 16, 2015

George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation at Mount Vernon

From our friends at Mount Vernon...

George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation at Mount Vernon on View Through January 6, 2016

Look beyond the turkey and stuffing to learn more about the history of Thanksgiving at Mount Vernon. Now on view at Mount Vernon is George Washington’s signed Thanksgiving Proclamation!  On exhibit in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center through January 6, 2016, this important document was drafted after a contentious 1789 debate in Congress calling upon the President to “recommend to the people of the United State a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed.” This historically significant document marks the first national celebration of Thanksgiving for November 26, 1789.

“Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation marked the end of a momentous year in American history, the beginnings of a new government under a new constitution,” said Mount Vernon’s Robert H. Smith Senior Curator, Susan Schoelwer. “We are thrilled that a generous loan from a private collection makes it possible to share this unique historical treasure with visitors to Washington’s home.”

Thanksgiving is a treasured holiday started - unbeknownst to most Americans - by George Washington. On October 3, 1789, Washington issued his Thanksgiving proclamation, designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving.” Washington first mentioned the possibility of a national Thanksgiving Day in a confidential letter to James Madison in August 1789 (just months after taking office), asking for his advice on approaching the Senate for their opinion on “a day of thanksgiving.”

Washington knew the value of a thanksgiving day long before becoming our first president. During the Revolutionary War, he ordered special thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles, and he publicly endorsed efforts by the Continental Congress to proclaim days of thanks, usually in recognition of military victories and alliances. The concept of thanksgiving was not new to the citizens of the new United States. Colonists even before the Pilgrims often established days of Thanksgiving Days to mark certain occasions. These one-time events could occur at any time of the year and were usually more solemn than the Thanksgiving we observe today, emphasizing prayer and spiritual reflection.

While subsequent presidents did not consistently follow this tradition, it was Washington’s original proclamation that guided Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Lincoln even issued his proclamation on the same day, October 3, and marked the same Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 26, as Washington, setting Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November after the first president’s example. Thanksgiving became an official legal holiday only in 1941, when Congress named the fourth Thursday in November as our national day of thanks in answer to public outcry over President Roosevelt's attempt to prolong the Christmas shopping season by moving Thanksgiving from the traditional last Thursday to the third Thursday of November.

Access to the Thanksgiving Proclamation exhibit is included in general admission to Mount Vernon:  $17/adults, $9/child. Free for children ages 5 and younger. For more information about activities and events, please visit