AS AMERICANS GATHER around the holiday table this week, no one is likely to be concerned about the legitimacy of our most cherished national holiday, or about the president's yearly Thanksgiving Day proclamation.
Yet in the early years under the Constitution, Thanksgiving fueled a lively debate that touched on two core elements of American liberty: the division of power between the federal and state governments, and the separation of church and state.
Melanie Kirkpatrick, a veteran journalist now based at the Hudson Institute, recounts the controversy in her wonderfully engaging new book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.
The issued flared up when the first Congress, having worked for six extraordinarily productive months to implement the new Constitution and create a national government from scratch, was preparing to recess. On September 25, 1789, Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey proposed that a congressional delegation be sent to President George Washington to request "that he ... recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God." The resolution emphasized in particular that Americans should give thanks for the "opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness."
But Boudinot's motion drew immediate fire. Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina raised an objection based on that very Constitution. . . .