President George Washington designated November 26, 1777 as the first Thanksgiving Day recognized by the US government. In the years that followed, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times, until Abraham Lincoln made it an ongoing National holiday.
His proclamation read, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the Heavens.”
For most of us, Thanksgiving goes by in a blur of family, friends, holiday preparations, and a table of traditional dishes. The story of the first Thanksgiving was very different from our own and holds important lessons for us today.
The Fruit of One’s Labors: After landing on our shores, life was almost unbearable for the Pilgrims for the first few years. Crop yields were poor and many went hungry. William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth Bay Colony later reasoned that the old English tradition of farming in common – where the harvest was collected and rationed based on need – led to a lack of productivity. It seems that some of the colonists resented not receiving a share of the harvest proportional to their labors.
When Bradford decided to abandon farming in common in the spring of 1623, things changed. He set aside a plot of land for each family as their own private property to supply themselves with corn. The result was a bountiful harvest. The idea of enjoying the fruits of one’s own labor caused productivity to soar. Bradford wrote, “It made all hands very industrious, so much more corn was planted then otherwise would have been by any means.” And so, in the fall of 1623 Governor Bradford “set apart a day of thanksgiving.”
Recover from Mistakes: When the Pilgrims first packed their belongings into trunks and crossed the rickety wooden gangplank onto the deck of the Mayflower, they were setting sail much later than they had originally planned. Instead of reaching their planned destination in Virginia, they found themselves hundreds of miles off course. They anchored in Massachusetts and braved a frigid first New England winter and then suffered three years of near starvation. Many would curse their bad luck and consider giving up, but not these hardy souls.
The Pilgrims accepted the things they could not change and adapted and adjusted to their unforeseen and new conditions. How do we respond to setbacks? If you have experience investment losses, or if you’ve racked up too much credit card debt, or if you’ve made some bad career moves, resolve to recover and bounce back. We can learn from the Pilgrim’s example and ability to overcome.
Weather Hardships: The men and women that first landed on these shores back in 1621 were not seasoned explorers or soldiers; they were mostly a group of religious Separatists who held regular jobs. They were farmers and printers and shoemakers with no experience or knowledge in establishing a settlement in an adverse land.
During that first traumatic winter, half the pilgrims died. And here we are, almost 400 years later, living in vastly different times. Still, human hardship remains. People get sick, loved ones die and we sometimes struggle because of unemployment or any number of other life events.
The Pilgrims were a small group who leaned on each other and their Native American allies. What is your support network like? As you gather with your family and friends this week, take time to develop and appreciate the ability you have to offer support and guidance to one another.
Move Ahead: Those first years in Plymouth must have been dreadful. Of course they didn’t have consumer confidence surveys back then so we don’t know the sentiment in the early 1620s.
Eventually, the fledgling colonial economy became so successful that Governor Bradford wrote these words 24 years after the first Thanksgiving, “Any general want or famine has not been amongst them since to this day.”
Years of abundance followed the first few hard winters. Eventually the colony produced enough corn to spare and trade for other comforts and enjoyment.
What about today? According to Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index, confidence hovered last week near a record low.
However, unemployment is slowly improving, businesses generally have good balance sheets and profits have been boosted by cost cutting on everything including capital spending and inventories. While the economic data doesn’t point to robust economic growth, the economy is expanding.
It is my hope that soon workers will be enjoying the fruits of their labors with years of abundance. Give Thanks: Before you enjoy your meal this Thursday, perhaps you might like to share the words of President George Washington with those at your table. Here is his Thanksgiving Proclamation from October 3, 1789:
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.
About this column: Steve Davis is a local CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ who has been helping clients for more than twenty years. He serves clients in Mansfield, Foxboro, Easton and other local communities. You can find out more about Steve and his company, Davis Financial at www.talkwithdavis.com
The opinions and economic forecasts voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Research material has been prepared by LPL Financial.
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