A Grateful Heart: Thanksgiving Proclamations in our Archives

Day of Thanksgiving Proclamation
Governor John Hancock
(MS0119, DC394. 26 1783)
Will you be celebrating later this November with a grateful heart, as John Hancock urged citizens of Massachusetts to in a 1783 Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving? The broadside featured here is from our archival collection, and was issued by Governor Hancock in the Council Chamber of the Old State House on November 8. Under the advice of his Council, the proclamation set Thursday, December 11 as a day of thanksgiving and prayer. Proclamations such as these were published as broadsides, and posted throughout the city to notify citizens of the upcoming day of observation.

Thanksgiving was not celebrated nationally until George Washington issued a proclamation for it in 1789 and it wasn't a federal holiday until Abraham Lincoln declared it as such in 1863. Prior to that, individual colonies would periodically declare days of thanksgiving for various reasons. We are grateful that our archival collection includes many proclamations for days of thanksgiving, prayer, and fasting. For Days of Thanksgiving, in particular, our holdings include more than thirty proclamations issued by Massachusetts Governors dating from the 1700s into the early 1900s. The oldest proclamations in our collection include this one by John Hancock, a 1796 proclamation for solemn prayer and fasting issued by Governor Samuel Adams, and a 1764 proclamation for a general fast issued by Governor Francis Bernard.

Thanksgiving Proclamation
Governor Channing Cox
(MS0119, DC394. 26 1921)
Since Thanksgiving was established as a federal holiday in 1863, the proclamations declared in the late 19th century and 20th century were primarily ceremonial in nature. A 1921 proclamation issued by Massachusetts Govorner Channing H. Cox recalls the 300th anniversy of the landing of the Pilgrims and also reads "Now, therefore, in appreciation of the numerous blessings which have been ours through the past year, in accordance with the custom of my predecessors who have counted it an honor to follow where Governor Bradford led, and with the advice and consent of the Council, I, Channing H. Cox, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, appoint Thursday, the twenty-fourth day of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise." Compare that with John Hancock's 1783 proclamation, which has a more religious tone, and says "I do by and with the Advice of the Council appoint Thursday the Eleventh Day of December next (the day recommended by the Congress to all the States) to be religiously observed as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, that all the People may then assemble to celebrate with grateful Hearts and united Voices, the Praises of their Supreme and all Bountiful Benefactor for his numberless Favours and Mercies."

While the function of the Thanksgiving Proclamation changed over the years, the general sentiment remained the same, that citizens of Massachusetts take a moment to reflect on their blessings with a grateful heart.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager