It would be the first American Thanksgiving proclamation issued for many years that didn’t end in “God Save the King,” this proclamation issued in 1774 just two hundred years ago. And it would set a pattern for all future American Thanksgiving proclamations. Almost from the beginning, the colonists in New England had set aside a day in spring for fasting and prayer and, again in the autumn, a day to give thanks for the blessings of God. These mostly had been proclaimed, however, by Royal Governors on paper bearing the royal crest. But in this October of 1774, there was no hope of this. For nine years, since the time of the imposition of the aborted Stamp Tax, Britain and her American colonies had been struggling in a cold war, and it was getting hotter.
The street riots, later to be called “The Boston Massacre”, when British soldiers fired on demonstrating civilians, were only four years in the past. Just ten months earlier, in December, 1773, “The Mohawks” inflamed by a new tax on tea, had swarmed over London-loaded vessels in the Boston port and dumped overboard the cargoes of tea — tea worth L10,000 which washed up in windrows around the edges of the harbor. The newly appointed British commander and Royal Governor was General Thomas Gage, a famous soldier, who did not easily suffer people whom he regarded as rebels and traitors. His troops were quartered in Boston, five regiments of them, and the guns of his ships in the harbor were trained on the town. That June Parliament had closed the port of Boston until the citizens should pay for the tea that had been jettisoned.
Earlier, in May, when the Provincial Assembly had petitioned him to set aside a special day for prayer and fasting because of the unsettled times, Gage had not even bothered to respond.
“The request,” he said, “was only to give an opportunity for sedition to flow from the pulpit.”
There was, therefore, no hope that General Gage would proclaim a day of Thanksgiving, but the colonists were to have their Thanksgiving, General Gage or no.
The bedeviled Gage was learning that he had lost control of his colony. He had thought, for instance, to humble John Hancock by removing him from the colonelcy of a showpiece company of cadets. The cadets quit in protest. Further angered by the Assembly vote appropriating money for Massachusetts attendance at the First Continental Congree, Governor Gage pocket vetoed the appropriation and dissolved the Assembly. Gage then called for the election of a new Assembly, summoned it to meet in Salem, and then changed his mind and told it not to meet.
The newly elected Assembly, ninety strong, met in Salem anyway, on October 5th, waited two days for Gage to turn up, and then voted: “To resolve themselves into a Provincial Congress, to be joined by such other persons as have been or may be chosen for that purpose…”. The newly formed Provincial Congress then elected as its President, John Hancock.
Hancock was a merchant prince, a lover of fine wines, good books and elegant clothing. He liked to compliment a friend by ordering a suit of “superfine broadcloth” from his own tailor as a present. At the time, he was becoming one of the most dedicated of the new breed of American patriots. He was a man with fire in his eyes and a jutting jaw, and his popularity and influence were such that the royal power could hardly touch him. He would later become the first man to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence.
The Congress adjourned from Salem on a Friday and met again the following Tuesday, October 11, in Concord. There it resolved: “That when this Congress shall adjourn over the Sabbath that it be adjourned to the Court House in Cambridge”.
From the small Court House they moved across the street to the larger Meeting House of the First Church of Cambridge, the place from which the first independent Thanksgiving proclamation would be issued. It was a long rectangular building, then 18 years old, at a corner of what is now the Harvard Yard next to Harvard Square. A towering spire topped off by a jaunty weathercock rose from its west end. Like most colonial meeting houses, it served as a church on Sundays and a place for town meetings on weekdays.
The delegates entered under a one-story porch on the south side. Inside the 71×51 foot hall, they were seated facing the long north wall with its pulpit surmounted by a large roundheaded window.
The Congress convened there on Monday, October 17. On the following Friday, the 21st, it was moved to set 3 o’clock in the afternoon as a time for considering the “propriety of recommending a day of public thanksgiving throughout the province” and set 4 p.m. for discussing an alternative proposal for a day of fasting and prayer.
However, they spent all day talking about avoiding the use of any East India tea whatsoever and didn’t get around to either.
The following morning, Saturday, October 22nd, in the second item of business, it was ordered that the Hon. John Winthrop, the Rev. Joseph Wheeler and the Rev. Solomon Lombard draw up a Thanksgiving resolution.
All three were Harvard men. Professor Winthrop, a senior member of the Harvard faculty, was one of the sixteen children of Judge Adam Winthrop and had been baptized by that clergyman and first great American man of science, Cotton Mather. He had been elected President of Harvard in January without his consent and having refused the honor, in this very month of October he had turned the college administration over to the new President. John Winthrop had been the head of his Harvard Freshman class at the age of 13, partly because of his father’s distinction but also on his own merits. He was now one of the foremost scientists of his day, ranking with his friend Franklin. He was one of the men who had received a John Hancock suit.
Before noon Winthrop’s committee reported. Whether they had written the Proclamation in a little more than an hour that same morning or whether they had written it the night before in anticipation, no one knows. It was read, amended and accepted. It satisfied both those who wanted feasting and those who wanted fasting. It read:
The Congress passed the resolution to its President, John Hancock. He affixed to it the bold Hancock signature, and boldly did Benjamin Edes and John Gill print the signature and proclamation in their Boston Gazette of Monday, October 24, 1774.
This was the first Public Proclamation of the first independent, although quasi-legal, legislature of the Revolution. Formally printed as a broadside it was sent to be posted up in every town and village and “sent to all the religious assemblies in this province”. The proclamation and the following Thanksgiving day were enthusiastically received. “Their edicts are implicitly obeyed,” an embittered General Gage complained. On that December 15, the business of the Province shut down. The Boston Gazette reported that “two or three embittered persons of the most insignificant and contemptuous of Sects” opened their shops, but that even some British soldiers had chided them for insulting their countrymen.
Never again though were American thanksgivers to worry about the “Smiles of our Sovereign”. This first Thanksgiving proclamation by an independent legislature set a pattern for the future prayer proclamations of the nation about to be born. Within nine months, soon after the bloody surprise of Lexington and Concord, where the British troops were pursuing Sam Adams and John Hancock as well as illegal arms, the infant Continental Congress proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting for all the Thirteen Colonies. This action on the 12th of June, 1775 was the first national prayer proclamation in the long history of the Republic. At this moment of crisis in the far scattered Colonies, this proclamation bound them together in their prayers as in their arms. This was also signed by John Hancock, now president of the new and “continental” congress.
Many times during the next terrible years the Continental Congress set days of prayer and fasting. It wasn’t until 1777 after the battle of Saratoga that they were finally able to declare the first day of national Thanksgiving and rejoicing.
But the significant note had already been struck. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1774, on the threshold of free government in America, was a call for gratitude with the same lasting power as when 150 years before their forefathers began their life in the New World with an act of Thanksgiving.
Now we ourselves are venturing into a great beginning, the third century of American freedom. We too can feel — as deeply as those who pioneered and those who won our freedoms — their abiding sense of humility and thankfulness. May it be so.
Herb Vetter added this brochure to Harvard Square Library with the permission of, and giving thanks to, the following individuals and organizations:
This brochure was made possible by the cooperation of these people and institutions. We are thankful to Paul Crume for the text. We are grateful to Eric Sloane for his leading illustration. Our thanks for history and interpretation to: Dr. Richard W. Hale, Jr., Archivist of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Arthur J. Krim, Cambridge Historical Commission, Professor Richard L. Bushman, Boston University, Thomas L. Davis, Boston University, Professor L. Kinvin Wroth, University of Maine, Dr. Joel D. Meyerson, Harvard University, Marcus A. McCorison, American Antiquarian Society, Dr. Claude W. Barlow, Clark University, Dr. Stephen Riley, Massachusetts Historical Society. For documents and photographs we appreciate the cooperation of Harvard College Library (Fourth Meeting House), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Copley’s John Hancock), Harvard University (Copley’s John Winthrop), American Antiquarian Society (proclamation).
The American Thanksgiving Experience