Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the ideal holiday to celebrate by sharing historical legal information with family and loved ones: out of all holidays, on Thanksgiving there is the best chance that said family and loved ones will be too full to run away from the table quickly when the topic of historical legal research comes up. Even better, if one’s captive audience falls asleep one can blame it on the turkey. The following resources may be useful for either legal research or topical dinner conversation:
Most of the popular characterization of the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621 is due to records written by two colonial governors: Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford and Mourt’s Relation by Edward Winslow. These documents were lost and only rediscovered in the 19th Century, when they became the basis for associating Thanksgiving Day with the feast shared by the Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag Indians.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress declared Thursday, December 18, 1777, a day of “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” in honor of the victory over British forces at the Battle of Saratoga, and followed other victories with similar occasions.
George Washington issued the first presidential call for a “Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer” to be held on Thursday, November 26th, 1789. Similar one-time holidays were declared later, by President Washington again and subsequently by John Adams and James Madison. After President Madison’s call for a “Day of Thanksgiving” on Thursday, April 20, 1815, to give thanks for the end of the War of 1812, no national Thanksgiving holidays were celebrated for almost half a century.
Abraham Lincoln began the tradition of an annual Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, issuing a proclamation calling for a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise” to be held on the fourth Thursday of November, and requesting that the American people observe the occasion by giving thanks for the nation’s prosperity and by praying for an end to the Civil War.
In 1939, at the request of retailers hoping for a longer Christmas shopping season, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up to the third Thursday in November in a controversial decision; however, federal holidays are binding only on Washington, D.C. and federal employees, and state response to this move was mixed; Congress moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday of November in 1941 where it remained to the present day.
Finally, for those in need of a final legal anecdote to wake Thanksgiving guests up for dessert: the start of the tradition of the President ‘pardoning’ the White House turkey, often misattributed to Harry Truman, only dates back to the 1980s. The idea of a presidential pardon for a turkey was proposed by Ronal Reagan in 1987, who did not pardon any additional turkeys; the tradition of celebrating every Thanksgiving by issuing a pardon to the White House turkey was begun by George H. W. Bush in 1989.