BlogHolidays November 17, 2022

Thanksgiving: Thomas Jefferson Secret Holiday

Thanksgiving: Thomas Jefferson Secret Holiday 

Thomas Jefferson’s had a very Complicated Relationship with Thanksgiving. The third president declined to participate in the tradition. Since the United States became a nation, people have come together to count their blessings, feast on bountiful foods and give thanks with family and friends. These days, Thanksgiving celebrations usually involve turkey, pie and a food coma; in the past, they involved fasting, prayer gatherings and solemn religious ceremonies.

But there’s one president who refused to endorse the tradition: Thomas Jefferson.

Ever since Jefferson first declined to mark the day in 1801, rumors have swirled that the third president despised the event. But it was more complicated than that. For Jefferson, supporting Thanksgiving meant supporting state-sponsored religion, and it was his aversion to mixing church and state that earned him a reputation as America’s only anti-Thanksgiving president.

In Jefferson’s time, Thanksgiving as a national holiday didn’t exist at all. The formal observance of Thanksgiving Day only began in 1863, when Lincoln proclaimed the holiday in response to the horrors of the Civil War. By then, the tradition of giving thanks as a nation had been in place since 1777, when Congress declared a national day of thanksgiving after America’s victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Afterward, presidents would proclaim periodic days of fasting, prayer and expressing gratitude.

But not Jefferson. When he became president, he stopped declaring the holidays that George Washington and John Adams had so enthusiastically supported—and in 1802, he flirted with telling the nation why.

Shortly after his inauguration, a Baptist group in Connecticut wrote a letter to Jefferson congratulating him on his election and expressing concern about the state’s constitution, which didn’t specifically provide for religious liberty. Baptists had long been persecuted in the colonies due to their emotional religious ceremonies, their decision to baptize adults instead of children, and their belief in the separation of church and state. The Baptist Association of Danbury wanted to be sure that they’d be protected under Jefferson’s presidency.

Jefferson saw this as an opportunity to explain his views on state-sponsored religion. “I have long wished to find [an occasion to say] why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did,” Jefferson wrote to his attorney general and friend, Levi Lincoln.

At the time, Jefferson’s political enemies, the Federalists, loved to use his stance on the separation of church and state as a political cudgel, convincing Americans that he was an atheist who was making America less godly. Perhaps his response to the Baptists, which would be widely read, could make his views clearer and protect him against those slurs.

In an early draft of the letter, Jefferson faced the Federalist accusations head-on, explaining that he considered declaring fasts or days of thanksgiving to be expressions of religion and that he opposed them because they were remnants of Britain’s reign over the American colonies.

But Levi Lincoln warned him that his words might be construed as a criticism of New England, where feast of thanksgiving had become a beloved tradition. After careful consideration, Jefferson decided to drop the reference from his letter. His public reply to the Danbury Baptists didn’t include a comment on public celebrations of thanksgiving. Rather, Jefferson told them he believed in “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Jefferson paid the political price for that edit. “Withholding from the public the rationale for his policy on thanksgivings and fasts did not solve Jefferson’s problem,” writes historian James Hutson. Since the public didn’t know the reasoning behind his lack of thanksgiving proclamations, says Hutson, he remained vulnerable to Federalist attacks that accused him of godlessness.

In fact, Jefferson had once declared a Thanksgiving of his own: In 1779, while serving as governor of Virginia, hedeclared a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer. In 1808, he explained why he had been willing to do so as governor, but not president. Jefferson believed he could not endorse such a holiday without running afoul of the First Amendment—and furthermore, he considered days of thanksgiving the responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

For Jefferson, it was more important to maintain a strict separation of church and state than to cave in to the public’s love of giving thanks. But since he never explained himself in public, American citizens never got the chance to appreciate his principled stance on the holiday. Jefferson’s public silence on Thanksgiving spun out into a centuries-long rumor that he was a Turkey Day grinch—especially when his successor, James Madison, resuscitated the tradition in 1815.

So if you dined with Jefferson on a Holiday like say Thanksgiving after he was Governor of Virginia and talked about it. This is what you might have been served. 

Jefferson’s Foods: 

From writing the Declaration of Independence to commissioning the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most influential figures in our presidential history. But strides toward social and political freedom were not the only things he made relevant during his two terms. We have Jefferson’s unique taste to thank for popularizing some of the most beloved foods in American culture—think ice cream, mac ‘n’ cheese and even french fries.

Ice Cream

While it’s untrue that Jefferson invented ice cream, his obsession with serving the frozen treat at dinner parties greatly popularized it in America. There are multiple references of ice cream popping up in White House history between 1801 and 1809, and several notes of guests describing its presentation “inside of a crust or pastry” (pie à la mode, anyone?). Jefferson’s own ice cream recipe was inspired from his time in France and is one of the ten recipes in his handwriting that still exist today.

Tomatoes harvested from Monticello’s Vegetable Garden2. Tomatoes

We can say with certainty that Thomas Jefferson both cultivated and ate tomatoes from 1809 until 1824 and quite possibly grew them as early as 1781. Tomatoes were not as popular in Jefferson’s time and were often believed to be poisonous because of their membership in the Nightshade plant family. According to one published report, Jefferson created quite a bit of consternation when he publicly ate a tomato in front of the present Miller-Claytor house in Lynchburg.

Macaroni and Cheese….thank you sir so much!

There may not be an exact known inventor of “mac ‘n’ cheese,” but Jefferson’s connections to this ever-popular dish are strong. One of the few surviving recipes in Jefferson’s hand is nouilly á maccaroni.  Although the recipe is simply for noodles, a couple of Jefferson’s relatives wrote down recipes for baked macaroni with the now-familiar milk, butter and cheese. Federalist senator Manasseh Cutler described eating “a pie called macaroni” at the President’s House in 1802, and the population hasn’t stopped raving about it since.

President Jefferson was enamored by macaroni and cheese, which he discovered on a trip to France. Jefferson is actually credited with increasing macaroni’s popularity in the United States after he served it at a State dinner in 1802

French Fries …. What would fast food be without this item?

‘Potatoes, raw, in small rounds, deep-fried’ as described by Jefferson

Jefferson returned to America from France with a recipe for pommes de terre frites a cru en petites tranches, which essentially translates to “deep-fried potatoes in small cuttings.”  His notes from the President’s house contain perhaps the earliest American reference to this now ubiquitous food. Mary Randolph, one of Jefferson’s relatives, included a recipe for fried potatoes in her historic cookbook, The Virginia House-Wife. Though they have a round shape instead, the potatoes are otherwise nearly identical to what we call french fries.

Other Foods

The Founding Fathers certainly were fond of their wine, and Thomas Jefferson was no exception. He also enjoyed (many) glasses of Madeira. But he was also a worldly man and brought foods from his travels back to the United States. He loved waffles, Parmesan cheese, and French cuisine.

Recipe for a Pie called Macaroni 

Congressman Manasseh Cutler of Massachusetts wrote this of the dinner menu he attended at the White House on February 6, 1802: “Dined at the President’s—Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni.”

Macaroni was an ancient Old World dish that Thomas Jefferson became smitten with on a trip to Italy. He was so entranced, he shipped a pasta machine back to America around 1790 and wrote of the dish. He describes making a paste “with flour, water & less yeast than is used for making bread” and running it through the machine to create macaroni. It was a dish he enjoyed and liked to serve to guests.  His Holiday Fare! 

A Pie Called Macaroni

Mary Randolph’s recipe, in her 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife, was a standard of the day: “Boil as much macaroni as will fill your dish, in milk and water till quite tender, drain it on a sieve, sprinkle a little salt over it, put a layer in your dish, then cheese and butter as in the polenta, and bake it in the same manner.”

Macaroni and Cheese Pie……Thomas Jefferson..

4–6 servings


1½ tablespoons plus 1½ teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

2 cups elbow macaroni (luck would have it we do not have to make this today unless you want to)

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

5½ ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1½ cups)


3 tablespoons butter

1 cup fine breadcrumbs

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese


Make the macaroni. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 2-quart baking dish and set aside.

Combine 1½ teaspoons of the salt, the black pepper, pepper flakes, and nutmeg in a small bowl. Set aside.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat and add the remaining salt. Add the pasta and stir. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente, 7 to 11 minutes.

Remove the stockpot from the heat, add 1 cup cold water, and stir. Drain the pasta well in a colander and rinse lightly under warm water. Shake dry, transfer the pasta to a large bowl, and set aside.

Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until warm. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Whisk the flour into the butter, stirring until blended and smooth, about 1 minute. Gradually pour the milk into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens, 5 to 6 minutes.

Whisk in the reserved spice mix and Dijon mustard. Add the cheddar cheese and stir until melted and smooth. Pour the sauce over the pasta, stirring to coat, and transfer to the prepared baking dish.

Make the topping. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the breadcrumbs, and toss to coat. Remove from the heat, and stir in the Parmesan.

Evenly sprinkle the topping on the pasta. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is bubbly and golden.