Philadelphia Thanksgiving History – Franklin and the Turkey

Philadelphia Thanksgiving History is filled with fascinating facts – the most notable being that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey – not the eagle – to become the national bird, and presumably to appear on the Great Seal of the United States.

In a private letter to his daughter, Franklin wrote:

“For my own part, I wish the Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character… For the truth, the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America… He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who would presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

Franklin was referring to several historical facts in this quote:

1) The eagle had been known in Europe, and was associated with many empires, most prominently the Roman Empire. Since a revival of interest in classical thought and themes was dominating the 18th century and the Founding Fathers, its connection to the ancient Roman Empire was probably the main reason why the Continental Congress adopted it as the symbol.

2) The turkey is in fact native to America – Central America, in fact. Europeans had not encountered the wild turkey until the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in what is now modern-day Mexico, and who took it back to Europe.

3) A grenadier of the British Guards was one of the elite troops in the Royal Army – the tallest, bravest, and most skilled soldiers in the King’s forces.

Perhaps one reason why this idea seems comical today, was the fact that in 18th-century Philadelphia, Thanksgiving dinner as we know it in modern times did not exist. Thanksgiving celebrations actually originated in Puritan New England. Although Thanksgiving proclamations did exist in every colony, the ancestor of the contemporary holiday was in New England celebrations - and probably did not take place often, in Quaker-dominated Philadelphia and the colony of Pennsylvania.

Accordingly, the first significant Thanksgiving proclamation in Philadelphia history most likely came from the Second Continental Congress, in 1777, in the midst of the Revolutionary War. On October 17 of that year, British General John Burgoyne had surrendered his entire army to an American force at Saratoga, in upstate New York. When the news reached the world, it energized the Americans and demoralized the British – and was the catalyst for France to enter an open alliance with the colonies.

Accordingly, Congress – sitting in Philadelphia – proclaimed December 18 (not a date in November), 1777 as “a day of solemn Thanksgiving and praise” for this “signal success.” But elements of New England Thanksgivings were present, since Samuel Adams of Massachusetts was presiding over the committee that drafted it. The language was similar to a New England Thanksgiving proclamation, and it did take place on a Thursday (the traditional day in New England).

The following year, the Philadelphia-based Congress were even later with its Thanksgiving proclamation – this time for the benefit of the French alliance, the news of which had taken place in May 1778. Congress did not issue the proclamation until November 17, and it wasn’t scheduled until December 30, 1778!

Thanksgivings – at least those issued by the Congress in Philadelphia, as opposed to their traditional New England feasting celebrations, which were at least reasonably similar to those of the present day – continued to be issued in December, with one exception, for the remainder of the war. The 1779 proclamation declared Thanskgiving to be December 9, and in 1780, on December 7. (The latter gave particular thanks for the foiling of the treasonous plot of Benedict Arnold, to betray the fortifications at West Point to the British.)

In October 1781, the war was effectively ended at Yorktown, Virginia, when British General Lord Cornwallis had to surrender his entire force to a Franco-American army under George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. And so the Thanksgiving Day proclamation that year was the most significant yet, set for December 13, 1781.

The following year – with the war still officially unresolved, due to treaty negotiations between the Americans, British, and French in Paris – Congress declared its first and only November Thanksgiving Day, for November 28, 1782.

In 1783, with the Treaty of Paris having been signed, Congress declared December 11 as the Thanksgiving Day for independence and peace. The following year, Congress moved it up to October, declaring the 19th day of that month as Thanksgiving.

However, at this point, non-New England Congressional delegations began to complain about the “imposition of a New England holiday” on the rest of the nation. As a result – perhaps because the crisis of the war had passed and there was now the opportunity to argue over symbolic issues, Congress ceased to proclaim Thanksgiving Days, until Washington took over as the first U.S. President in 1789.

This page is still under construction – please be patient, and check back for more content…

Source – Thanksgiving, An American Holiday, An American History, by Diana Karter Appelbaum.

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