On October 3, 1789, George Washington signed the first Thanksgiving Proclamation of the newly formed American Republic. He called on the American people to enjoy a “public day of thanksgiving and prayer, celebrated by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many virtues of God Almighty.” It was a long and difficult road to independence, and America was still plagued by the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the struggle for the adoption of the new Constitution. Washington had seen the conflict firsthand, and he knew, perhaps more than anyone else, that America was nothing short of a series of miracles. And he saw that the nation is thanking.
This was not the first Thanksgiving celebration in America; The Pilgrims’ Celebration of 1621 with the Wampanoags in Plymouth holds the honor. And this wasn’t even Washington’s first Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was declared in December 1777 in the aftermath of the Continental Army’s victory over the British at Saratoga. This was, however, the first Thanksgiving of the American Republic. It was the first national Thanksgiving.
Washington went on to proclaim another observance in 1795, and his successor, John Adams, followed in 1798 and 1799. But as America’s position in the world was fixed, and as the controversy over the separation of church and state began to take shape. Thanksgiving has been forgotten on the national stage. A state of peace and abundance did not lead to a grateful America but to complacency. But the War of 1812 reminded Americans that their collective place in the world was far more fragile than they had imagined. At the conclusion of the war in 1814 James Madison proclaimed “a day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of the United States.” Madison declared another Thanksgiving in 1815.
And then almost half a century passed.
Once again things were quiet, and once again national celebrations of Thanksgiving fell by the wayside. The founding generation, the best generation in America, has passed, and with it the possibility of national gratitude seems to have passed as well. Just as the War of 1812 reminded the nation of its instability, the Civil War shattered the illusion of American harmony. Abraham Lincoln had warned the nation in 1858 that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and by 1863 a divided nation was already in danger of falling.
Americans turned to Lincoln, and Lincoln turned to God. Even in the midst of the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, Lincoln saw America’s blessings. “The year which is drawing to a close,” said he, “be filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthy heavens. To these graces, which we so continually enjoy that we tend to forget the source from which they came, have been added others of such extraordinary nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and smooth even A heart that is usually imperceptible is the everlasting care of Almighty God.”
At the lowest tide in America, the nation’s most devoted servant chose to thank him rather than bemoan himself, and the collectivism of America, and indeed there were reasons to be thankful. As Lincoln said, “Peace has been kept with all nations, order maintained, laws respected and obeyed, and harmony reigned everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater was greatly contracted by the progress of the armies and navies of dependence.” to the union.”
This was the birth of Thanksgiving as we knew it. In the worst of times, and in circumstances so dire that the continued existence of the Republic was not certain, Lincoln taught us to look beyond ourselves…to be truly thankful for the blessings we have received. And so it has been for 143 years.
As we celebrate the Lincoln holiday on the last Thursday of November, take a moment to reflect on the series of miracles that bring us together and keep us together. Take a cue from Washington and feel the scale of the achievement of the generation that built this country, often through force of will. Take a cue from Lincoln and appreciate the blessings we enjoy rather than crave the things we don’t like. Take a cue from the best America has to offer and say a prayer of thanks.
happy thanks giving.
Reprinted from the Faith and Freedom Institute