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Thanksgiving: The Holiday of Abolitionists

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My dislike for a lot of traditional Thanksgiving food, especially turkey, is fairly well known around these parts, but I always knew the holiday and its food more or less came out of colonial era New England. What I did know was that the celebration of Thanksgiving became deeply wrapped up in the sectional politics of the pre-Civil War era as New Englanders sought to make it a national holiday. This is just great stuff:

Virginia was the hotbed of anti-Thanksgiving sentiment. In 1853, Governor Joseph Johnson declined to declare a day of Thanksgiving for his state, citing Thomas Jefferson’s firm doctrine of separating church and state. Johnson’s successor, the slave-owning fire-brand Henry A. Wise, was even more intransigent. In 1856, he received the same annual letter from Sarah Josepha Hale that every other governor did, encouraging him to declare a general day of Thanksgiving. Wise not only declined to make the proclamation, but fired back a testy refusal.

“This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving,” he declared, “has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.” By “other causes,” of course, he meant abolitionism.

That same year, the Richmond Whig elaborated the Southern case against Thanksgiving, excoriating the carnality of the holiday, which the editors felt should instead be spent in divine worship. In the District of Columbia, they noted, where all federal offices would be closed, “an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled” and the holiday would be “little more than an occasion for indulgence in dissipation at the cost of character.”

“While we are content,” the editors continued, “to buy our cotton spools and wooden ware from New England, because hers are the cheapest, we are by no means content to receive her notions of religion, morals, the duties of citizenship, &c, as being the best.”

Anti-Thanksgiving sentiment wasn’t confined to Virginia. In 1855, William H. Holcomb, a homeopathic physician in Natchez, Mississippi, recorded in his diary, “This was Thanksgiving day…I am sorry that the Yankee custom has crept in among us. I object to it because it makes gratitude to God a matter of civil ordinance, and limits to a single day the exhibition of feelings which should be a portion of our daily life.”

Those damned abolitionists, forcing Thanksgiving down the throats of Southern elites while attacking the benevolent institution of slavery….

Of course, the South did have one good point against Thanksgiving, which was the absurdity of New Englanders not celebrating Christmas. It was only after the Civil War that Thanksgiving was widely celebrated in the South and Christmas in New England. Interesting that in doing so, the South also basically accepted the entire menu from New England. Rather unfortunate too.

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