“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner"

November 22, 1869

Thomas Nast

“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner"

American Indians; Black Americans; Chinese Americans; German Americans; Holidays, Thanksgiving Day; Immigration; Irish Americans; Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant; Symbols, Columbia; Symbols, Uncle Sam; U.S. Constitution; Voting Rights; Women, Symbolic;

Grant, Ulysses S.; Lincoln, Abraham; Washington, George;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption.

This Thomas Nast cartoon, published in the November 20, 1869 issue of Harper's Weekly, celebrates the ethnic diversity and envisions the political equality of citizens of the American republic.  Joining the Thanksgiving Day feast of hosts Uncle Sam (carving the turkey on the far-right) and Columbia (seated on the far-left) are Americans from all over the world:  German, Native American, French, Arab, British, African, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Irish.  Behind Uncle Sam is a large picture of Castle Garden, the main immigrant depot in the United States, with the inviting label reading “Welcome.”  (Located at the foot of Battery Park in southernmost Manhattan, Castle Garden was the primary station for processing immigrants until replaced by Ellis Island in 1890.) 

The cartoon also has the specific aim of endorsing ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was intended to guarantee that federal voting rights could not be denied on the basis of race.  The Fifteenth Amendment had been passed by Congress in February 1869 and was being debated in state legislatures when the featured cartoon was published.  The Republican-controlled New York legislature ratified the measure, but the fall 1869 elections returned a Democratic majority, which soon reversed the earlier vote.  However, the amendment did gain the approval of enough state legislatures to become part of the Constitution in March 1870.

Here, the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Day table is a monument to “Self-Government” and “Universal Suffrage,” while a sash bearing the designation “15th Amendment” appears above a portrait of the then-current president, Ulysses S. Grant.  (The visual separation of “amen” from the rest of the letters in “amendment” may be a purposeful reflection of the Thanksgiving theme.)  Joining Grant in Nast’s portrait gallery of great American presidents are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, under the latter of which is written the martyred president’s plea of “with malice toward none and charity to all.”  The placement of Columbia between a black man and Chinese man is significant, representing Nast’s consistent support of their civil rights and opposition to the violence and discrimination inflicted upon them.  

Festivals and ceremonies of thanksgiving for bountiful harvests date far back in human history, having been celebrated by the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, and other groups.  In the United States, the first Thanksgiving is usually associated with the English Pilgrims in Massachusetts.  Those Protestant dissenters, also called Puritans, had rejected the holy days (holidays) of Christmas, Easter, and Saints’ days on the Roman Catholic and Anglican religious calendars, and therefore recognized only the Sunday Sabbath, fast days, and thanksgiving days.  However, the Pilgrims did not consider the feast in the fall of 1621 with their Massasoit Indian neighbors to be a religious day of thanksgiving, but a harvest festival like the ones traditionally celebrated in their native England.

The New England Puritans did dedicate certain days to thanksgiving when harvests or wars were successful, and days of atonement when the results were unsatisfactory.  On the thanksgiving days, the community gathered at the meetinghouse (the Puritan name for a “church,” a term considered too Catholic to use) to give thanks to God for the blessings bestowed upon them.  They then reconvened for a celebratory dinner, which largely assumed the festive role that Christmas dinner held in England and other colonies.  By the mid-seventeenth century, a thanksgiving day in the fall was an annual event in New England.  The Continental Congress declared the first national day of thanksgiving in December 1777, and in each December through 1781 and again in 1783.  Presidents George Washington and John Adams revived the practice, with President James Madison proclaimed two thanksgiving days in 1815, the year the war of 1812 ended.

Thereafter, the holiday reverted to regional variations, with New England states observing Thanksgiving in the early-nineteenth century, soon joined by other Northern and Midwestern (“Western”) states and territories, and Southern states by mid-century.  In the 1840s and 1850s, the holiday increasingly lost its primary religious focus and became a secularized fall festival of family reunions, feasting, and charity to the poor.  

The leading proponent of a national day of thanksgiving was Sarah Josepha Hale, a New England novelist, poet (best known for “Mary Had A Little Lamb”), reformer, and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular and influential women’s magazine.  Every year between 1847 and 1863, she editorialized in favor of a national Thanksgiving Day.  During the Civil War, President Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving in April 1862 and August 1863 (after Gettysburg), but it was his proclamation in November 1864 that set a precedent followed by all subsequent presidents.  In 1941, Congress formally established the fourth Thursday in November as the nation’s Thanksgiving Day.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner"
May 29, 2024

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