Two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), were involved in making Thanksgiving a formal holiday, but George Washington was actually the first president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving—ironically issued exactly 74 years (to the day) before Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Each president’s desire to have a day of thanksgiving was different.
- Washington announced a day of thanksgiving and prayer in 1789, partly to honor the new U.S. Constitution. He proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
- Lincoln actually declared two separate Thanksgiving celebrations in 1863: one following the Union’s victory at Gettysburg and an official declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. The official Proclamation of Thanksgiving reads:
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
- FDR issued a 1939 Presidential Proclamation to move Thanksgiving to the second Thursday in November so that merchants’ sales wouldn’t be affected by the Thanksgiving holiday. He was concerned that shortening the shopping season would dampen the economic recovery. After the proclamation was issued, nearly a third of the states refused to accept the change. It wasn’t until December 26, 1941, that the conflict was finally resolved. The fourth Thursday in November was officially declared as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.