An excerpt from Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application, by Stephen W. Stathis, Specialist in American National Government, as a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress
President George Washington issued the first proclamation calling for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” on Thursday, November 26, 1789. Six years later, Washington called for a second day of thanksgiving on Thursday, February 19, 1795. Not until 1863, however, did the nation begin to observe the occasion annually. That year, President Abraham Lincoln issued a thanksgiving proclamation requesting “citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourned in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November ... as a day of Thanksgiving.” During the next three quarters of a century, each President, by proclamation, established the exact date for the celebration each year.27 Beginning in 1870, Thanksgiving became a paid holiday for at least a portion of the federal work force, after Congress gave the President power to designate a day of thanksgiving, which was to be a holiday within the District of Columbia.28
The tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November, begun by President Lincoln in 1863, was faithfully followed, each year but two, until 1939. That year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the third Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.29 By moving Thanksgiving up a week, Roosevelt "hoped to aid retail business by producing a longer Christmas shopping season.”30 Although Roosevelt’s decision was greeted enthusiastically by the business community, others, including a sizable portion of the public, as well as a large number of state officials, protested against changing the longstanding American tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. Despite this criticism, Roosevelt repeated his action in 1940. By May 1941, however, the administration concluded that the experiment of advancing the observance date had not worked.31
A law signed by President Roosevelt on December 26, 1941,32 settled the dispute and permanently established Thanksgiving Day as a federal holiday to be observed on the fourth Thursday in November. The intent was to “stabilize the date so that there [would] be no confusion at any time in the future without congressional action.” President Roosevelt announced, shortly before the resolution was approved, “that the reasons for which the change was made do not justify a continued change in the date.”33
27 Robert J. Myers, Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, third edition
(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972), pp. 280-281.
28 16 Stat. 168.
29 The two exceptions occurred in 1865 and 1869 respectively. In 1865, President Andrew
Johnson designated the first Thursday in December as Thanksgiving Day, and President
Ulysses S. Grant selected the third Thursday in November for the observance in 1869. Jane
M. Hatch, The American Book of Days (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1978), p. 1056.
30 G. Wallace Chessman, “Thanksgiving: Another FDR Experiment,” Prologue, vol. 22, Fall
1990, p. 273.
31 Ibid., pp. 278-283. The protests are also mentioned in U.S. Congress, House Committee
on the Judiciary, Thanksgiving Day, report to accompany H.J.Res. 41, 77th Cong., lst sess.,
H.Rept. 1186 (Washington: GPO 1941), p.1. Debate on the significance of the change is
found in Rep. Earl C. Michener, “Thanksgiving Day,” remarks in the House, Congressional
Record, vol. 87, Oct. 6, 1941, p. 7653; and Sen. John A. Danaher, “Designation of
Thanksgiving Day,” remarks in the Senate, Ibid., vol. 87, Dec. 9, 1941, p. 9551.
32 P.L. 77-379, 55 Stat. 862.
33 Thanksgiving Day, H.Rept. 1186, p. 2.