I’m trying to get a sense of what a New Hampshire Thanksgiving might have looked like in November of 1770. Bear in mind, how particular I am about the date itself. 1770. There’s a tendency to lump “the colonies” into a big basket containing everything from Jamestown in 1607 to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783.
Although Thanksgiving was officially designated a national holiday during the Lincoln administration, it was never a purely invented holiday. It has a long, long history in New England, however much secular revisionists may wish to deconstruct it. As Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson observed about the early bay colonists, writing from the vantage point of 1765:
”…They laid aside the fasts and feasts of the church of England, and appointed frequently, as occasion required days of fasting and thanksgiving; but, besides these occasional fasts and thanksgivings, they constantly,every springs appointed a day for fasting and prayer to implore the divine blessings upon their affairs in the ensuing year and in the fall, a day of thanksgiving and public acknowledgment of the favors conferred upon them in the year past. … It has continued without interruption, I suppose, in any one instance, down to this day. This is a custom to which no devout person, of any sect will take exception. By a law of the colony, every person absenting himself from the public worship, on these days, without sufficient excuse, was liable to five shillings fine…”
By 1777, the Continental Congress chose to issue a formal Thanksgiving proclamation for all of the United Colonies, with particular attention to their recent victory over British general John Burgoyne:
Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God, to acknowledge with gratitude their obligations to him for benefits received, and to implore such further blessings as they stand in need of; and it having pleased him in his abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war for the defence and establishment of our inalienable rights and liberties, particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a measure to prosper the means used for the support of our troops and to crown our arms with most signal success: it is, therefore, recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the 18th day of December, for solemn thanksgiving and praise ; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor, and that together with their sincere acknowledgments of kind offerings they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance ; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public councils of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings,—independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labor of the husbandman, that our land may yield its increase; to take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue, and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
And it is further recommended that servile labors and such recreations as, though at other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion.
Friday, November 7, 1777. Ordered, That a duplicate of the recommendation to the several States to set apart a day of thanksgiving, signed by the President, be sent to the several States and to General Washington and General Gates.
Allowing ourselves a little room for summary, the primary features of these pronouncements seem to be:
- A universal admonition to thank God for his providential care.
- A specificity about Jesus and the Holy Spirit
- A Recognition of the nation’s “manifold sins.”
- A blessing to be sought for:
A) The nation’s “arms” — its military strength
B) Peace and Independence
C) prosperity of trade and harvest
D) proliferation of schools and seminaries
Culturally, the observation of the day itself would be characterized by:
- No labor
- No recreation or games
- Prayer and consecration
In the November, 1771 edition of the New Hampshire Gazette, a notice was printed as follows:
Thursday, the 21st of this Instant is appointed by Authority to be observed as a day of publick (sic) THANKSGIVING throughout this province; being the same day it is in the Massachusetts government.
Matthew Patten, our Bedford New Hampshire justice of the peace, usually just recorded a single terse line — “day of public thanksgiving” on a latter Thursday in November each year. Significantly, unlike most other days, he recorded no business of any sort either.
Thanksgiving proclamations could also be the subject of political intrigue as happened in November of 1771, when Thomas Hutchinson commanded the people to praise God for the continuance of their civil and religious liberties — at a time when the people believed they no longer retained them.
In our target Thanksgiving for 1770, which actually took place on Thursday December 6th, the town of Courage would have known about half the outcome of the Boston Massacre trial. Captain Preston’s trial, which began on October 24 lasted five days, and his acquittal was known in New Hampshire by mid November. The soldiers, however, came to trial on December 2nd, with the verdict being made known on December 5th.
So for the purposes of our story, it might be likely to assume that Silas Rhodes, by the fireplace in the Hawk’s Head Tavern might be contemplating the verdict lately delivered, as well as the one soon to be announced; he might be anticipating a day of little or no labor, much prayer, and public thanks. Although the memories might not be as festive, or rambunctious, as our own memories of thanksgiving, it might also be reasonable for him to recount the tradition of that holiday (“holy day”) of his ancestors.