In a few days, President Obama will proclaim Thanksgiving. The President’s Thanksgiving proclamation on Thanksgiving Day, 2012, reminded the nation not only of the history of Thanksgiving in the U.S., but also of previous presidential Thanksgiving proclamations.
Many Thanksgivings have offered opportunities to celebrate community during times of hardship. When the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony gave thanks for a bountiful harvest nearly four centuries ago, they enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe — a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before. When President George Washington marked our democracy’s first Thanksgiving, he prayed to our Creator for peace, union, and plenty through the trials that would surely come. And when our Nation was torn by bitterness and civil war, President Abraham Lincoln reminded us that we were, at heart, one Nation, sharing a bond as Americans that could bend but would not break. Those expressions of unity still echo today, whether in the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country, the Union our forebears fought so hard to preserve, or the providence that draws our families together this season.
In his 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation George Washington said,
Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States 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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War by saying:
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. …
… Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. …
…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. 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.
Since Lincoln’s proclamation, each and every president has annually proclaimed Thanksgiving. In his last Thanksgiving proclamation, just two weeks before his assassination, President Kennedy also recalled the proclamations of Washington and Lincoln.
Much time has passed since the first colonists came to rocky shores and dark forests of an unknown continent, much time since President Washington led a young people into the experience of nationhood, much time since President Lincoln saw the American nation through the ordeal of fraternal war–and in these years our population, our plenty and our power have all grown apace. Today we are a nation of nearly two hundred million souls, stretching from coast to coast, on into the Pacific and north toward the Arctic, a nation enjoying the fruits of an ever-expanding agriculture and industry and achieving standards of living unknown in previous history. We give our humble thanks for this.
During the Iran hostage crisis, President Carter reminded the nation that we have much to be thankful, even during times of crisis.
Even in times of trial and frustration we have much to be thankful for, in our personal lives and in our Nation. As we pause on Thanksgiving to offer thanks to God, we should not forget that we also owe thanks to this country’s forefathers who had the vision to join together in Thanksgiving, and who gave us so much of the vision of brotherhood that is ours today.
And in the months after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush extolled the strength of the American spirit.
We also remember those affected by the destruction of natural disasters. Their tremendous determination to recover their lives exemplifies the American spirit, and we are grateful for those across our Nation who answered the cries of their neighbors in need and provided them with food, shelter, and a helping hand. We ask for continued strength and perseverance as we work to rebuild these communities and return hope to our citizens.
Thanksgiving proclamations, like many presidential proclamations are ceremonial. They remind us of things that are important to us as a nation. They celebrate events and people. In 1989, President George Bush proclaimed WWII Remembrance Week to remember and recognize events of WWII and the people who fought, and all those who died. Yesterday, President Obama proclaimed that today would be a day of remembrance for President Kennedy. Since 2002, every president has proclaimed September 11 as Patriot Day in remembrance of the 9/11 attacks and the victims of those attacks.
Proclamations also remind us of things we should be mindful of: Military Family Month (Nov. 2013); National Native American Heritage Month; Child Health Day (Oct. 7, 2013); National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (Oct. 2013); Older Americans Month (May 2013); Mothers’ Day (May 12, 2013) and Fathers’ Day (June 16, 2013).
National monuments are established by presidential proclamation and trade agreements are implemented by presidential proclamation. Public policy may be set through presidential proclamation. In 1914, President Wilson established the neutrality of the Panama Canal Zone by proclamation. President Obama suspended entry into the U.S. of persons who have violated human rights or humanitarian law. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, but the most well-known presidential proclamation is, perhaps, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
How to Research Presidential Proclamations
Presidential proclamations are published in the Federal Register and codified in title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The Office of the Federal Register has indexed executive orders and presidential proclamations from 1945-1989 in the Codification of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders, which has both an alphabetical and subject index along with the text of the documents, though it does not contain all documents within the time period. Proclamations are also published in the United States Statutes at Large. Since 1957, they have been published in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Another source is the Compilation of Presidential Documents, which are published daily and weekly. Whitehouse.gov contains the proclamations of the current president. My favorite source for historical proclamation research is the American Presidency Project. I relied heavily on the American Presidency Project in writing this blog and many of the links are to documents on the site. Curiously, there is no comprehensive source of presidential proclamations and sometimes researching them requires using more than one source.