William Leggett argues that Thanksgiving Day is no business of the government (1836)

William Leggett

The radical Jacksonian journalist William Leggett (1801-1839) argued that the formal declaration by the Federal government of a national “Thanksgiving Day” was not properly the duty of the head of state but the individual heads of religion, if they so desired:

The only instance of intermeddling, on the part of the civil authorities, with matters which, being of a religious character, properly belong to the religious guides of the people, is the proclamation which it is the custom for the Governor of each state annually to issue, appointing a day of general thanksgiving, or a day of general fasting and prayer. We regret that even this single exception should exist to that rule of entire separation of the affairs of state from those of the church, the observance of which in all other respects has been followed by the happiest results. It is to the source of the proclamation, not to its purpose, that we chiefly object. The recommending a day of thanksgiving is not properly any part of the duty of a political Chief Magistrate: it belongs, in its nature, to the heads of the church, not to the head of the state.

It is sometimes quite striking to see how acts taken in time of war deeply influence popular culture for a long time afterwards. A good example of this is president Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” of October 3, 1863 in which he stated that, notwithstanding the “diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry,” and “the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battle-filed,” not to mention the many dead and injured, that the American people should “acknowledge as with one heart and one voice” “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Twenty seven years before, William Leggett had warned in his editorial of the dangers to the principle of the separation of church and state if the Chief Magistrate or head of state used his powers to declare a religious holiday. He stated that “this is no part of his official business, as prescribed in the Constitution”. On the other hand, he thought that power lay with the individual churches, their leaders, and congregations to decide what religious holidays to observe and how to observe them. This would obviously be consistent with what he described as “perfect free trade in religion”. Leggett concluded that “It is in this light we consider the gubernatorial recommendation of a day of thanksgiving; and because it is wrong in principle, and not because of any particular harm which the custom has yet been the means of introducing, we should be pleased to see it abrogated.”