render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws
In the fall of 1789, with the United States of America in its first year under the new Constitution, President George Washington, acting at the request of both elements of the First Congress, proclaimed the 26th of November, 1789 to be a national day of Thanksgiving. President Washington believed that Americans had many reasons to be grateful.
In his proclamation, Washington gave thanks for America’s revolutionary triumph in gaining its independence from Great Britain. He thanked providence for the prosperity of the American people and the freedoms they enjoyed (overlooking, as was the tendency of the time, the oppression of slaves and other groups).
President Washington also expressed thanks for the establishment of the Constitution, ratified in 1787 and in effect in March of 1789, when the First Congress convened. We, too, are thankful for the U.S. Constitution, the object of the oaths of enlistment and office for those who serve in the U.S. military. It is the finest expression of American values and principles, and remains an inspiration to freedom-loving peoples everywhere.
Washington then turned his gaze abroad. Asking God to “protect and guide” all nations, Washington requested a special blessing on the nations that had “shown kindness unto us.” Today, we echo this sentiment, hoping that all nations may act righteously and enjoy prosperity… especially the ones that are nice to us.
Washington’s was the first formal proclamation of a National Day of Thanksgiving. While Thomas Jefferson and others objected to such statements, seeing in them a dangerous infiltration of religion into government, Washington recognized that the feeling of gratitude knows no theological boundaries. Indeed, giving thanks is equally good for the atheist and the believer.
In a wonderful 2005 essay for the Wall Street Journal, the critic Christopher Hitchens (R.I.P.), an avowed atheist and naturalized citizen of the United States, declared that Thanksgiving, “the festival on which one hears that distinct and generous American voice,” was his favorite holiday. “Just be grateful,” Hitchens thoughtfully enjoined his readers. We could not put it any better.
In keeping with WAR ROOM’s tradition (hey… two years in a row qualifies) of reprinting Presidential Thanksgiving messages, here is the full text of George Washington’s 1789 proclamation:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to 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 especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
May you all have a happy and thankful Thanksgiving.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jim Bourg