Portrait of John Jay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
New York State’s first Thanksgiving proclamation came about, not in remembrance of the Pilgrims, but in relief over the passing of an epidemic of yellow fever. And it was controversial even then.
John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States (among many other things), but he gave up that seat when elected Governor of New York (in absentia; he was in Britain at the time) in 1795. That autumn, yellow fever broke out in New York City. Now known to be a viral infection spread by mosquitoes, it was then little understood, but known to be contagious and carried by commerce. Tar was burned in the streets, in belief it would purify. Governor Jay proclaimed that vessels from the West Indies must be held at Governor’s Island until they were certified free of the disease. The Governor of Pennsylvania forbid “all intercourse” between Philadelphia and New York for a month. Although previous epidemics were far worse in terms of death, this one led significant segments of the population to leave the city, in a general sense of panic. Rotting fruits, carcasses and even cotton were pulled from stores and burned in the belief they could spread the disease.
Once cold set in, the fever abated (as we now know, because the mosquitoes become dormant). Governor Jay issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26, a day for “his fellow citizens throughout the State to unite in public thanksgiving to that Being through whose Providence the ravages of the yellow fever had been stayed.” (As Chief Justice, Jay had presided over only four cases; none of them had to do with separation of church and state.) This was met with strident criticism by stalwarts of the Democratic party, who saw it as typical Federalist expansion of executive powers. William Jay’s “The Life of John Jay” explains that in New England, such days of thanksgiving had long been customary and were provided for in law; but in New York, such days had never been appointed by civil authority, and the law and the new constitution (which John Jay drafted) made no such provision.
Jay anticipated the objections in his proclamation:
“Whether the governor of this State is vested with authority to appoint a day for this purpose, and to require and enjoin the observance of it, is a question which, circumstanced as it is, I consider as being more proper for the Legislature than for me to decide. But as the people of the State have constituted me their chief magistrate, and being perfectly convinced that national prosperity depends, and ought to depend, on national gratitude and obedience to the Supreme Ruler of all nations, I think it proper to recommend, and I therefore do earnestly recommend to the clergy and others of my fellow-citizens throughout this State to set apart Thursday, the 26th November, instant, for the purposes aforesaid, and to observe it accordingly.”
One objection by John Sloss Hobart asked, “Do my glasses magnify too much when I fancy I see the cloven foot of monarchy in this business?” His argument? That if the clergy could not “intermeddle with the political concerns of the community; the door is for ever barred against them,” then there should be no civil interference with their authority. “It may happen that our civil governor may recommend a thanksgiving to be celebrated on the same day which our spiritual governors had set apart for fasting.”
A day of national thanksgiving was first proclaimed by President George Washington in 1789. He did so again in 1795, the same year as Jay. New York started making annual proclamations of a day of thanksgiving in 1817.
So whatever you’re thankful for today, you can at least be thankful that you don’t have yellow fever.