The Regional Review

Volume III - No. 2

August, 1939


---And The Glorious Fourth in December

By William P. Brandon,
Acting Superintendent,
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park,
Greensboro, North Carolina.

Of all the holiday seasons and festival days celebrated on a national, state, or local scale in the United States, the most typically American, and the most beloved with the possible exception of Christmas, are Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Both are rooted deeply in the nation's history and each has its traditional type of celebration. Each has its traditional spirit, as on the one occasion the nation is called upon to render thanks for the blessings which have been vouchsafed to it, while on the other there occurs a surge of patriotic feeling that wells up from the hearts of all the people.

There is interest in what appears to be the earliest recognition of Thanksgiving on a national scope, and it is probable that it will be somewhat startling to a majority to discover that the earliest known celebration of the Fourth was, by official action, in the nature of a Thanksgiving Day. The origin of Thanksgiving at Plymouth is one of the most familiar stories of American history. Possibly less well known, however, is what may be its first recognition on a national as distinguished from a local scale.

In October 1783 the Congress of the Confederation set apart a day of Thanksgiving for the end of the Revolution. In a circular letter to the governors of the various states the President of the Congress, Elias Boudinot, under date of October 221, transmitted news of the action of the Congress in a proclamation reading as follows:

Whereas, it hath pleased the Supreme Ruler of all human events to dispose the hearts of the late belligerent powers to put a stop to the effusion of human blood by proclaiming a cessation of all hostilities by Sea and Land and these United States are now happily rescued from the dangers and calamities to which they have been so long exposed, but their freedom, Sovereignty and Independence ultimately acknowledged. And whereas in the progress of a contest on which the most essential rights of human nature depend, the interposition of divine providence in our favor hath been most abundantly and most graciously manifested and the Citizens of these United States have every reason for praise and Gratitude to the God of their Salvation. Impressed therefore with an exalted sense of the blessings by which we are surrounded and of our entire dependence on that Almighty Being from whose goodness and bounty they are derived, the United States in Congress assembled do recommend it to the several States to set apart the second Thursday in December next as a Day of public Thanksgiving that all the people may then assemble to celebrate with grateful hearts, and united voices, the praises of their Supreme and all Bountiful Benefactor for his numberless favors and mercies, that he has been pleased to conduct us in safety through all the perils and vicissitudes of the War; that he has given us unanimity and resolution to adhere to our just rights; that he hath raised up a powerful ally to assist us in supporting them, and hath so far crowned our United efforts with success, that in the course of the present Year hostilities have ceased, and we are left in the undisputed possession of our liberties and Independence and of the fruits of our own land and in the free participation of the Treasures of the Sea; . . .2

Possibly even more interesting, however, is what appears to be the original celebration of the Fourth of July, and its identification with the spirit of that other great American holiday, Thanksgiving. This also occurred in 1783, and was in recognition of the same event which occasioned the setting apart of a day of Thanksgiving by the Congress. On Friday, May 16, 1783, the House of Commons of the General Assembly of North Carolina considered, passed, and sent to the Senate the following resolution:

Resolved, that the fourth Day of July be and is hereby appointed a day of General Thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God for the gracious Interposition of Divine Providence in behalf of this nation; that it hath pleased Him to deliver us from the calamities of War and crown our wishes with the blessings of Peace; and that his excellency the Governor notify the same by Proclamation.3

In the Senate the Resolution was read and concurred in on the same day,4 and a few weeks later Governor Alexander Martin issued his proclamation in conformity therewith as follows:

Whereas the honorable the General Assembly have by a Resolution of both Houses recommended to me to appoint Friday the Fourth of July next being the anniversary of the declaration of American Independence, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving to Almighty God, for the many most gracious interpositions of his providence manifested in a great & signal manner in behalf of these United States, during their conflict with one of the first powers of Europe: -For rescuing them in the Day of Distress from Tyranny & Oppression, and supporting them with the aid of great & powerful allies:-For conducting them gloriously and triumphantly through a just and necessary War, and putting an end to the calamities thereof by the restoration of Peace, and after humbling the pride of our enemies & compelling them to acknowledge the Sovereignty and Independence of the American Empire and relinquish all right & claim to the same:-For raising up a distressed and Injured People to rank among independent Nations and the sovereign powers of the world. And for all other Divine favors bestowed on the Inhabitants of the United States & this in particular.

In conformity to the pious intentions of the Legislators I have thought proper to issue this my Proclamation directing that the said 4th Day of July next be observed as above, hereby strictly commanding and enjoining all Good Citizens of this State to set apart the said Day from bodily labour, and employ the same in devout and religious exercices. And I do require all Ministers of the Gospel of every Denomination to convene their congregations at the same time and deliver to them Discourses suitable to the important Occasion, recommending in general the Practices of Virtue & true Religion, as the great foundation of private Blessings as well as National happiness and Prosperity.5

It does not appear how generally the celebration of this Fourth took place throughout North Carolina, but one distinct group of the population did follow literally the instructions contained in the proclamation. On June 30 one of the ruling boards of this group, the Moravians, noted in its minutes the following: "By proclamation of the Governor the Fourth of July is to be celebrated as a Day of Thanksgiving for Peace. All our congregations shall be instructed to observe the Day."6 The Diary of the largest of the Moravian Congregations, that at Salem, describes the celebration that took place there in these words:

According to the order of the government of this State we celebrated a day of thanksgiving for the restoration of peace. The congregation was awakened by the trombonists. At the beginning of the preaching service the Te Deum was sung, with trombone accompaniment. The Watch-Word for January 20th, the day on which the Peace Preliminaries were signed, was: The God of Jacob is our refuge, taken from the 46th Psalm, which gave opportunity to use this Psalm as the text for the Sermon, which was preached by Mr. Benzien. The service closed with the singing of: Glory to God in the highest. At two o'clock there was a happy lovefeast, during which a Psalm of Joy was sung with thankful hearts. In the evening at eight o'clock the congregation again assembled in the Saal, and the choir sang: Praise be to Thee, who sittest above the cherubim. Then the congregation formed a circle in front of the Gemein Haus, and from there passed in procession through the main street of the town, with music and antiphonal song of two choirs. The street was illuminated. Returning to the Gemein Haus the congregation again formed a circle, and with the blessing of the Lord was dismissed to rest. Hearts were filled with the peace of God, evident during the entire day and especially during the procession, and all around was silence, even the wind being still.7

It thus appears that in the earliest days of recognized independence the two most completely American holidays were identified closely in their basic ideas, and that what is probably the earliest celebration of the Fourth of July was of the nature of Thanksgiving.

(1) The State Records of North Carolina (W. B. Clark, ed.), XVI, 906.

(2) Ibid., XVI, 906-907.

(3) Ibid., XIX, 358, "Commons Journal."

(4) Ibid., 223, "Senate Journal."

(5) Records of the Moravians in North Carolina (A. L. Fries, ed., Publications of the North Carolina Historical Commission, 4 vols., Raleigh, 1922-30), IV, 1919-1920. The proclamation does not appear in the State Records but the copy sent to the Moravians was preserved in the church archives.

(6) Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, IV, 1853, "Minutes of the Aeltesten Conferenz."

(7) Ibid., IV, 1853, "Salem Diary."

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Date: 04-Jul-2002