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1845—Washington’s First Thanksgiving

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 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In November of 1845 Washington’s newspapers, including the National Intelligencer, and The Union, reported on Mayor William Winston Seaton’s proclamation of November 27 as a “Day of Thanksgiving,” it being the city’s first observance of the holiday. Maryland’s Governor Thomas Pratt had issued a Thanksgiving proclamation earlier in October, also setting November 27 as the day for that states’ observance.

Proclamation, as published in the National Intelligencer newspaper’s November 15, 1845 edition, of “a day of general Thanksgiving and Praise to Almighty God.”

Proclamation, as published in the National Intelligencer newspaper’s November 15, 1845 edition, of “a day of general Thanksgiving and Praise to Almighty God.”

Seaton’s proclamation had sparse local precedents. [1] The Thanksgiving holiday observance had New England, “Yankee,” origins — primarily Connecticut and Massachusetts — but had recently slowly spread southward through the states. Niles’ Weekly Register, in the last quarter of 1817, noted in passing Thanksgiving proclamations in New-York, Pennsylvania, the city of Charleston, and Vermont.

In 1832 Washington had had a special (one-off) day of thanksgiving for the departure of the cholera epidemic. The epidemic was a serious one – 1,000 cases were reported, half of them fatal. Washington’s population at the time was only 24,000. [2]

As the 1840s progressed an increasing number of state governors adopted the holiday and proclaimed the observance of a day of thanksgiving in late November or early December. Federal holidays simply did not exist. The only other precedent might have been from the early days of the Republic, when Presidents George Washington and John Adams had each had proclaimed a day of thanksgiving as a religious observance.

City government document from 1845 as published in Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan’s Various Forms of Local Government in The District of Columbia (1908).

City government document from 1845 as published in Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan’s Various Forms of Local Government in The District of Columbia (1908).

Washington in 1845 was, to employ the cliché, a sleepy small town, of a little over 33,000 residents. Still in the future lay the major features familiar today. The creation of the Smithsonian would happen in the following year; the groundbreaking initiating the long struggle to build the Washington Monument in 1848.

1846 John Plumbe daguerreotype showing the United States Patent Office's F Street façade. Mayor Seaton lived one block to the south. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

1846 John Plumbe daguerreotype showing the United States Patent Office’s F Street façade. Mayor Seaton lived one block to the south. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

A few years previously an unimpressed Charles Dickens briefly visited, declaring it a “city of magnificent intentions” (magnificent in intent but far from fulfillment).

William Winston Seaton was a fixture in the life of Washington city for five decades. A newspaperman, he was co-editor of the city’s paper of record, the National Intelligencer. A Whig politician, he served as president of the city’s Board of Aldermen from 1819 to 1831 and later was mayor for five terms, from 1840 to 1850. He was a member of the First Unitarian Church (now All Souls Church, Unitarian). An element of Unitarian doctrine is thanksgiving, so that may have influenced this first Washington observance.

William Winston Seaton, mayor of Washington, circa 1860. photo--Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Div.

William Winston Seaton, mayor of Washington, circa 1860. photo–Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Div.

Washington’s Unitarian church was organized in 1821 by a distinguished group of the city’s elites, including Congressman John Quincy Adams, Senator John C. Calhoun, editor William Winston Seaton, editors Joseph Gales, Sr., and Joseph Gales, Jr., William Eliot, Charles Bulfinch, and Judge William Cranch.

The First Unitarian Church building was built at the corner of 6th and D Streets, NW (now the site of the historic, early 1940s Recorder of Deeds building). The church was designed by Charles Bulfinch, most well-known as the Architect of the Capitol. In 1845 the Unitarian church was one of the 34 houses of worship of many different denominational stripes in Washington.

The First Unitarian Church, rendering by architect Charles Bulfinch. image--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

The First Unitarian Church, rendering by architect Charles Bulfinch. image–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

What inspired Mayor Seaton and the aldermen to inaugurate the city’s celebration of Thanksgiving remains unknown. Newspapers had kept up a drumbeat for the observance for several years previously. In 1839 the Madisonian printed an editorial from the New York Journal of Commerce urging the celebration; in 1840 reprinted a holiday history from the Boston Post; and in 1842 reprinted the Archbishop of Baltimore’s circular requesting that churches in the archdiocese conduct services on December 14 in observance.

Prompted, perhaps, by Maryland’s observance, in 1843 a letter to the editor in the Madisonian, published on November 8th and 9th and signed “District,” could cite general discussion advocating a Washington Thanksgiving observance:

“THANKSGIVING. Mr. Editor: A friendly discussion of this question appears to be well received by the community from the progress the day has made is our country and, with your permission, I submit a few words in its favor; at the same time I am happy in observing that several communications have already appeared through the columns of our different journals, relative to its observance in this District.”

America had generally discarded holidays derived from the saints’ days of the Catholic liturgical calendar. Aside from Christmas, one of the few holidays that did exist at the time was Washington’s Birthday, celebrated with a prestigious party — the “Birth Night Assembly” — at Carusi’s Saloon.

Not everyone was able to celebrate the holiday in 1845 — the Columbian Fountain on December 2nd reported that the circuit court jury had been locked up and not allowed to join their families.

Temperance advocates were strong supporters of the Thanksgiving Day observance. The Columbian Fountain, a temperance newspaper, reported that a temperance meeting had been organized in short order in Alexandria (then still at part of the District of Columbia) to conclude Thanksgiving Day.

This local designation of the observation was not satisfactory to some who saw the holiday as a chance to overcome deepening sectional differences. The Daily Union ran an editorial,  bylined “MARKER,” that addressed the matter:

“How much cause have we, then, as a nation, to be thankful! And if we were really and truly so would not those sectional feelings, and personal and party animosities and bickerings, melt away as the winter snows before the summer’s sun. . . .

“. . . [L]et there be one day of national and universal thanksgiving — let the North and the South, the East, and the West, feeling that they have a common origin, a common country, and a common destiny, annual assemble as kindred of one blood around the altar of their country, and, forgetting the dissension the past, resolve, for all time to come, to live and to act as one great family for the maintenance of LIBERTY and the perpetuity of our glorious UNION.”

In 1846 the Daily Union’s New York correspondent could report on a quiet, snowy day in New York City and note the widening adoption of a common day: “To-day is Thanksgiving — the Yankee holyday — and a very happy, quiet, pleasant day, too — kept this year, on the same day, by eighteen States and one territory — next year by all the Union — I hope.”

President James K. Polk and First Lady Sarah Polk may have observed the holiday and hosted friends for a meal. Esther Singleton in The Story of the White House cites an unnamed report that the Polks did host a Thanksgiving meal (for friends) and the hope that it become a tradition. The tradition persists, but the President’s diaries do not bear it out. [3]

The parishioners of St. John’s Episcopal Church were so pleased with the Thanksgiving Day sermon their pastor, Rev. Smith Pyne, delivered that that they had it published.

Maryland had begun observing Thanksgiving Day in 1842. In 1840, editor Duff Green’s Baltimore newspaper Pilot & Transcript, in its November 28th edition, included the Boston Transcript’s glowing description of the “alien” custom of “Thanksgiving Day in New England” as “. . . a time of universal festivity and joy” with “the biggest apples” and “the biggest pumpkins are cut up and manufactured into the biggest kind of pies.” Turkey and chicken were served.

It only took a couple of years to persuade Maryland’s governor, Francis Thomas; his 1842 proclamation began:

“Believing, that it is the wish of a large portion of the people of Maryland, that on one and the same day, all the people of this State, should return thanks to the Author of all being, for the blessings which HE has munificently bestowed upon them, as a people; and, believing, that the appointment of a day, for such a purpose, by their Chief Magistrate, would be cheerfully acquiesced in. . . .”

The governor recommended December 14 for the observance.

In 1843 Maryland joined Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan, Missouri, and Indiana celebrating earlier on November 30th; Maine, New Jersey, and Vermont chose December 7th, and New York chose  December 14th. In 1844, it Maryland switched back to December 12th.

By 1845 Baltimore’s American Republican and Baltimore Clipper reported on a curious Thanksgiving Day festival, sponsored by the ladies of the Universalist Church, and included intriguing mention of “Thanksgiving presents.” On November 25th the paper also advocated for nationalizing the holiday: “We are glad that the good old custom of setting apart one day of the year on which to return thanks to Almighty God for his many merciful dispensations, has been revived and is likely to be continued in Maryland; but we should be better pleased to see a national day el Thanksgiving recommended hereafter by the President of the United States.”

Virginia resisted the nationwide trend, and in the end rejected it. On November 29, 1853 the Richmond Daily Dispatch editorialized about “Thanksgiving Day”:

”We have no doubt that in time, the custom will spread and become universal. We trust it may, if it shall prove more than a mere formality. Certainly no people ever had more reason for gratitude to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. . . . The grand festival of the South is Christmas, and we hope it will always be retained at the head of the calendar, and never be thrown into the shade by any festival of modern invention. We do not suppose, because Christmas is not generally observed at the North, that its people are insensible to the grand event which that day commemorates, and it would be equally unjust to impute to Southern States a want of religious gratitude from the fact that they do not formally and periodically celebrate a day of Thanksgiving. We should like to see that day celebrated, for it is right in itself and we need a few more festivals, but never may the crown fall from the brow of Christmas, the benign and joyous old King of the Holidays.”

The Richmond Daily Dispatch on July of 1855 advocated for the governor to declare a Day Thanksgiving, and on October 9th of that year,  The Richmond Enquirer reported Governor Joseph Johnson’s diplomatic and carefully worded proclamation:

“Therefore, I, Joseph Johnson, Governor of Virginia, expressly disclaiming authority to require or control, do hereby, on behalf of the people, earnestly recommend that all, without distinction of creed or party, with one accord, unite in rendering homage and thanksgiving to God for his blessings, and in fervent prayer for a continuance of this guidance and protection. . . .”

Further, he carefully suggested November 15th. This was the first modern Thanksgiving in Virginia, but it was an abortive start. 1856 Governor Wise, Johnson’s successor, issued no Thanksgiving proclamation; that being so, the citizens of Farmville, Virginia observed it on the 20th — the newspapers noting that 20 other states did so as well. There was no official Virginia Thanksgiving observation after 1855; Alexandrians lost their holiday following  retrocession in 1846.

The new holiday had economic consequences accompanying religious observance. When Maryland and the District each began observing Thanksgiving as a holiday the newspapers were sure to include notices from the banks warning customers to redeem their bills the day before — “Notes falling due to-morrow, therefore must be paid to-day.” Newspapers were careful to announce that they would not publish the day following Thanksgiving.

After 1845 Thanksgiving seems to have become slowly ingrained in the life of Washington. But it was not without controversy. The Niles Weekly Register picked up on a potential cultural and ideological conflict: “Thanksgiving day, in New England, is to the domestic and family circles, what Christmas is to the rest of the Union, an occasion of home-gathering and hilarity.” It was not commented upon in the Washington newspapers at the time — it would take a decade for cultural and political stresses to ferment.

Political tensions blew across Thanksgiving observance as sectionalism increased in the 1850s. Unionist newspapers supported the observance; opponents eventually sharply criticized it. As the decade drew to a close the perceived conflict with Christmas observance (which in some years was only slightly more than a week later) sharpened, sectionalism and its history as a Yankee holiday, and failure of ordinary folks to observe the day as a religious event rather as an opportunity to drink and get into mischief.

The Evening Star’s position switched dramatically. In 1853 the paper reprinted on the front page a piece from Cora Montgomery’s Magazine extolling Thanksgiving. In 1854, it editorialized against the replacement of Christmas with Thanksgiving “for which we confess little fancy indeed.” It may have been the departure of co-publisher William H. Hope from the paper which allowed for the editorial shift.

In 1855 Alderman (and future mayor) William B. Magruder opposed the resolution, but lost. When the Washington aldermen took up the routine resolution in 1858, setting the observation for Thursday November 25, one alderman, W.F. Wallace, opposed it vehemently — the Star smirked: “There was evidently a difference of opinion with regard to the propriety of appointing days of thanksgiving.” Although the resolution was passed, the holiday was criticized as “days of drunkenness and riot . . . profanity, drunkenness, and bloodshed would ensue probably.”

On December 4, 1858 the Evening Star published an incredibly snarly and harsh editorial slapping down the observance of the holiday as a preface to a letter defending it. The letter writer, signing herself as “A Native of Virginia and Lady Reader of the Star,” dared to make a distinction between Thanksgiving and Christmas, advocating the celebration of both. Thanksgiving is to remember temporal blessings and Christmas spiritual ones. The editors told their readers  they were unwilling to enter into theological disputation, especially with a woman.

In their view, every Sunday was a day for Thanksgiving, so why would there be need for two more? She should donate her money to Washington’s poor who lost a day of work to the holiday and do penance “in advocating the legalization of a day set apart virtually for idleness, if not extravagance, and dissipation among the irreligious in every American community. . . .”

The Star editors cited the loss of wages “at least twenty thousand dollars” by the poor and the resulting idleness and drinking. But also, they wrote, “We do confess to an utter repugnance to the adoption of New England customs here smacking of the peculiar self-sufficiency of New England theology. . . .”

This was quite a change from five years previously –- on November 28, 1853 — when the Star featured Presbyterian Reverend Smith’s Thanksgiving sermon on the front page. The week previous Job Corson and Sam’l Gedney advertised their swift steamer “Geo. Washington” on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day would take passengers to Mount Vernon and White House Pavilion (Virginia) with a “good band” providing military and cotillion music on the way and continue at the ballroom at the Pavilion.

From the Niles National Register, Novembetr 28, 1846

From the Niles National Register, Novembetr 28, 1846

Christmas was a holiday with deep roots in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Puritan New Englanders declined to observe the day for many years. Elsewhere in the colonies and later in the states, it became traditional. Washingtonians observed Christmas.

Horse racing at Benning's track. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Horse racing at Benning’s track. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

The Victorian-era traditions percolated in—in 1838 the Madisonian on its front page printed “A Christmas Dinner” by “Boz” — that was Charles Dickens.

In 1860 the Evening Star reported that the Thanksgiving sermons in Washington pulpits were “strongly ‘Union’ in sentiment.” Georgetowners observed the day as well according to the Star — “in a proper and becoming manner.”

Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book began her campaign in 1846 for a national, federal observation of Thanksgiving. She made her case in her magazine, and the 1852 revision of her novel Northwood included the observation that ”it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness. . . .” The Star took notice and curiously published an excerpt from one of her letters in 1853. She wrote to each president after Polk. In an era of a much less overweening federal government, all the presidents she appealed to declined to make such a proclamation.

It was President Lincoln, in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, who proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for the nation and Americans overseas. His proclamation concluded:

”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. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers, in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.”

Congress passed the Act of June 28, 1870 (16 Stat. 168, June 28, 1870) creating New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as holidays for federal employees in the District of Columbia. This was at the instigation of the local business community. In 1879 February 22nd was added to commemorate Washington’s Birthday. In 1881 every Sunday was made a bank holiday. It was not until 1885 that holidays were established for federal employee outside of the national capital. [4]

Washington has developed some of its own Thanksgiving holiday traditions. In the 1850s the Washington Monument Society tried to fundraise for construction of the monument. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th racing at Benning’s track was a popular pastime — first horses, then automobiles. The early 20th century saw the fierce rivalry of the Howard-Lincoln Thanksgiving football game.

Automobile racing at Benning's track, Thanksgiving 1916. photo--Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Automobile racing at Benning’s track, Thanksgiving 1916. photo–Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Turkey at the White House, 1921 or 1922. photo Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Turkey at the White House, 1921 or 1922. photo Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1939, at the behest of retailers, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the date for the observance of Thanksgiving in his proclamation to be November 23. Outrage followed — outraged traditionalists, outraged clergy, outraged politicians. Ultimately 23 states celebrated the new date (the “Democratic” Thanksgiving), 23 celebrated the traditional 4th Thursday (the “Republican” Thanksgiving), and Texas and Colorado both. The District had no choice, it being the only jurisdiction where the president did actually determines the day of observance. [4] Roosevelt repeated the maneuver in 1940, which again saw two Thanksgivings. Finally, in 1941 he caved, but calendars had already been printed. The traditional date of the 4th Thursday of November was restored in 1942 and has remained there.

Turkeys for the Presidential table came from Rhode Island poulterer Horace Vose from 1873 to 1913. Public presentation of a turkey to the President seems to date back to the 1920s. Granting an official pardon to that turkey is a much more recent tradition. Surely to the surprise of many, the first President to pardon the White House Thanksgiving turkey was George H.W. Bush in 1989.

A rather bewildering array of 14 America holidays are the subject of this 1889 reproduction of a painting, titled The Red Letter Days. Print shows Father Time labeled "The Old Year," with a group of children representing “New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, Washington's Birthday, Easter Day, Fools' Day, May Day, Decoration Day, Arbor Day, Bunker Hill Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Forefathers' Day

A rather bewildering array of 14 America holidays are the subject of this 1889 reproduction of a painting, titled The Red Letter Days. Print shows Father Time labeled “The Old Year,” with a group of children representing “New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Easter Day, Fools’ Day, May Day, Decoration Day, Arbor Day, Bunker Hill Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Forefathers’ Day

 One-hundred and seventy-two years ago, Thanksgiving in Washington was wholly unlike the holiday celebrated today. Today it is routine, traditional, national, noncontroversial. Then it was new, “Yankee,” an innovation imported from the North. It was a local observance, not national. There was nothing like our current federal holidays. Not a tradition, it was uncertain — not only when, but whether there would be a Thanksgiving observed. When it was proclaimed, it was as a religious observance. But advocates of observing Thanksgiving saw it as a powerful weapon in combating the growing sectionalism dividing the country–an American holiday thanking God for the blessings bestowed on the Union. Others did try to co-opt it — abolitionists and temperance fighters.

For many today it is a celebration of family, rather than nation. Fifty-one million Americans are due to travel this year for Thanksgiving — 15 percent of the population. Today it has been secularized. Competition with Christmas has vanished; Thanksgiving now kicks off the month-long holiday season, with Christmas (or, arguably, New Years’) the conclusion.


[1] Allen C. Clark, “Colonel William Winston Seaton and His Mayoralty,” page 45. (Clark includes the text of the proclamation but makes no comment.)

[2] Mason Noble, “A sermon delivered in the Fourth Presbyterian Church in the City of Washington on a Day of Thanksgiving (November 22, 1832) for the departure of the cholera from that city.” (Washington, J. Gideon, 1832.)

Cholera Epidemic Of 1873 In The United States. The Introduction Of Epidemic Cholera Through The Agency Of The Mercantile Marine: Suggestions Op Measures Of Prevention. By John M. Woodworth, M.D., page.583. (Government Printing Office, 1875. )

Harvey W. Crew, Centennial History of the City of Washington, D. C.: With Full Outline of the Natural Advantages, Accounts of the Indian Tribes, Selection of the Site, Founding of the City … to the Present Time, pages 596-‘97/ (H.W. Crew, 1892

[3] Kirkpatrick, Melanie. Thanksgiving: the holiday at the heart of the American experience. p.85-86.

[4] Saturdays were made banking half-holidays in 1892; Labor Day was made a holiday in 1894.



 Thanks to Matthew Costello, Senior Historian, White House Historical Association and Michelle Krowl, Library of Congress Manuscripts Division.

References & Resources

 See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore.