The life and political career of Thomas Jefferson are rich in controversy, from his obsession with mastodons to his mixed messages about slavery. One lesser-known Jefferson take was his reluctance to endorse Thanksgiving, though he felt he had good reason.
To be clear, Thanksgiving as a national holiday didn’t exist during Jefferson’s time in office (1801-1809); Abraham Lincoln formalized it in 1863. Prior to that, presidents made decrees about celebrating days of gratitude (“thanksgivings”) as well as time for fasting or prayer. Both George Washington and John Adams, Jefferson’s predecessors, made such proclamations.
But Jefferson was having none of it. It wasn’t that he had any inherent problem with expressing gratitude; he simply felt making those observations official represented a failure to separate church and state. Jefferson was a proponent of keeping them apart, telling a Baptist group in 1802 that he held strict in his belief of a “wall” between the two.
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;’ thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State,” he wrote.
This was not a popular opinion. By failing to emulate Washington and Adams, Jefferson was accused of being an atheist by political adversaries. But he didn’t waver. There was no Thanksgiving or anything like it during his time in office.
Yet Jefferson did acknowledge Thanksgiving—just not as president. In 1779, he told the people of Virginia that a day of Thanksgiving was in order. The difference, Jefferson said, was that he was governor of the state at the time, not president, and that such plans should fall under the purview of state governments.
Despite his stance, Jefferson still made a contribution to the Thanksgiving of today. It’s believed he helped popularize macaroni and cheese in the U.S. after sampling it in France.