People say two topics should be avoided in polite company, especially around the table at Thanksgiving dinner: religion and politics. Ironically, the oldest Thanksgiving celebrations were precisely about religion and politics, and they didn’t take place on a set date each year. Thanksgiving, like religion itself, could be used to unite people, or to divide them. Professor Benjamin E. Park told the tale on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. If you haven’t heard this episode yet, it’s the perfect week to check it out!
BLAIR HODGES: It’s still a federal holiday [and therefore tied to politics], right?
PARK: Right. A federal holiday. Back in the late seventeen, early eighteen hundreds, Thanksgiving days were much more haphazard. Some years would have them, some wouldn’t. It would be a president who would say, “Hey, the second Thursday of February we’re going to celebrate as a day of Thanksgiving.” And the president would then give out a proclamation saying what America should be thankful for.
HODGES: What if there weren’t any football games scheduled for that day? [laughing]
PARK: There would be a lot more time to talk about politics!
HODGES: Yeah, okay. And that’s what they wanted to do, right?
PARK: Right. That’s what President Washington, the first president—
HODGES: The thing we say not to do now, “don’t talk about politics!”
PARK: This is what George Washington would do. He’d give out a proclamation saying what America should be grateful for—and by the way the things that they should be grateful for are his political positions—and then say, “Hey, all you local ministers, gather your congregations together, read my proclamation, and then deliver a discourse on what you’re thankful for.”
HODGES: Who could be an ingrate and not participate?
PARK: So while researching for my book I read a lot of these local Thanksgiving sermons that are given by these ministers to see what’s happening. What I find is, what they’re doing is they’re already using religion as their cudgel to beat their particular politics. President Washington would be quite general in his religious views because he recognized that America has lots of different religious backgrounds.
HODGES: And he’s the first president. He was kind of trying to set that as an example, right?
PARK: Exactly. So he would say like, “We need to thank the divine Father of America or the providence that guides us,” but then he’d find at the local level they were like, “We’re throwing this abstraction out the window. We know what he’s talking about.”
HODGES: Yeah, we’ll specify.
PARK: The ministers are like, “No, he’s talking about the God of the New Testament.” Just so there’s no question.
HODGES: Did deists and other people and free thinkers try to argue against that and say, “Look, he’s not using the language of the New Testament”? Because it seems like you could also argue the other side and say this is the language of some freethinkers and people like that.
PARK: They did not have a public voice yet. To be a deist or a freethinker was to be seen as a bad citizen and a threat to society. So you did not have access to the press. There are few people that did.
HODGES: But Washington still wasn’t empowered to use more specific language?
PARK: No. You’d find this anxiety at the local level.
One of my favorite Thanksgiving sermons given in 1795—and I talk about this in the book—this minister spends the first few pages of his sermons reaffirming to his congregants that Washington’s proclamation is not bad. He’s saying, “I know you have a lot of problems with this proclamation because it does not specify the God in the New Testament, because it does not specify Jesus Christ, because it does not quote the Bible. But don’t worry; Washington’s just doing this for PR reasons. In reality we all know America’s this Christian nation. And oh, by the way, we need to be thankful for,” as an example of how they’d blend their politics and religion, “we need to be thankful for how America brings liberty through order.”
Those three words don’t ring to us as strongly today, but those words were basically like a political campaign phrase for the political Federalist Party.
HODGES: It would be like saying “Make America Great Again.”
PARK: Yeah. It would be like going to a sermon today where the minister would say, “We as great children of God need to make America great again.”
HODGES: It would be that obvious.
PARK: Right. To where you wouldn’t have to specify that “Oh by the way, support this politician, or this political platform, but wink, wink, you know what I’m saying.” This is already in place in the 1790s.
HODGES: So this is why religion could really be a double-edged sword for the early American experiment because while most political theorists, philosophers, and citizens believed that a successful nation depended on some kind of national morality fostered by religion—most people would agree, we’ve got to have religion in order to keep this together—but at the same time, religion could also cause a lot of unrest and division. What are some examples of that?
PARK: Remember, these festivities are supposed to promote union, and in the end they’re kind of highlighting this disunion that’s already in place. So you’ve got some New England ministers who, in 1794 we have what’s called the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania where a group of citizens are upset with the direction of federal government, especially the taxes, one of the taxes on whiskey, which is where it gets its name.
So you’ll get some of these New England Thanksgiving ministers during Thanksgiving sermons of 1795 saying, “We thank God that we don’t face the same political extremism that those in western Pennsylvania face.”
HODGES: Define “New England,” too, for people who aren’t specialists.
PARK: People who live in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire…
HODGES: Ok, and they have a pretty settled religious sphere, and they’re looking at other people and saying, “Thank you that we’re so peaceful here.”
PARK: In fact, to show how the language is transitioned, they would often refer to the “nation of New England,” not the nation of America, because in New England we share our religion together, because we share common principles and values.
Now of course that papers over the fact that there was deep political division in New England and these Federalists who are in control in the 1790s are going to lose control the next decade.
HODGES: They can pretend like it’s united, they have the channels of power, they have the press.
PARK: Exactly. They’re also, these New England ministers, are casting an idea of this national covenant that America’s going to survive because we share these religious principles. But the way they frame it, you can read between the lines where they’re saying, “But those people who don’t share these principles are not part of this covenant and are therefore not true Americans.”
So these seeds of division in America are already in place within their religious rhetoric of what’s supposed to be a festivity celebrating American union.
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Benjamin E. Park is author of American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833. Park received his PhD from the University of Cambridge and is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. His scholarship focuses on the religious, political, and cultural history of America between the Revolution and Civil War, often within an Atlantic context.