We have all heard the stories of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, Native Americans, Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower – these are stories that have been passed down for generations in America. Many have questioned their validity, inquiring whether a peaceful gathering actually occurred on this day in 1621, filled with turkies and thankfulness. One story that is not often told, however, is the legal means by which this day actually became a national holiday for all Americans to celebrate. Not only is it important to understand the origins of the day itself from the stories of Pilgrims and Native Americans, but to appreciate why and how it became the Thanksgiving Day we all know and love.
In 1789, George Washington announced a Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November a national holiday and a day of Thanksgiving. What most people forget are the religious undertones of Washington’s Proclamation and of Congress’s request for him to issue the decree. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives had asked President Washington “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 and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” This request came from many of the same people who had ratified the U.S. Constitution the previous year, which as we all know, contained clauses in the First Amendment permitting people to freely exercise their religion, and prohibiting the government from establishing a religion. Although the Founding Fathers and original members of the government were not all religious (in fact, many of them were deists), George Washington and Congress both invoked God when proclaiming the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. Can you imagine a 21st Century President and Congress doing the same?
Far too often we lose sight as a nation of what brought us to where we are, what’s truly important, and the innate value and meaning behind what we celebrate. Today is not about turkeys and stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. It’s not about the season of fall, or some encounter Pilgrims and Native Americans may have had years ago. The true historical origins of this holiday rest in George Washington’s Proclamation (which, in case you’re interested, is included in its entirety below). President Washington proclaimed a day of thanks for an Almighty God that allowed us to peaceably and rationally assemble into these United States, enjoy civil and religious liberty, and secure safety and happiness enabled by the establishment of constitutions of government. This Proclamation helps reveal the notion that while American civil society will never espouse religious views, it refuses to act with hostility toward religion as well. If anything, this proclamation shows that America accommodates all religious belief, no matter the creed. President Washington was not necessarily referring to a Christian God, Yahweh, Allah, or any other divine being. He was referring to an almighty being; a being we’re freely able to choose to worship or not. The main point is that we should be thankful for this right to choose or freely exercise our beliefs.
In 21st Century America, we’re often too secular, too hostile to religion, and blissfully ignorant of our past. So when you dig into your turkey tonight, surrounded by family and friends, remember today is not solely about food or the celebration of fall, but of being thankful to a higher power that affords us the opportunity to spend time with those we love, in a society where we can all pursue happiness. Happy Thanksgiving.
George Washington’ Proclamation, October 3, 1789:
By the President of the United States of America, a 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 and 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 favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, 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 has 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 trangressions; 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 to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase 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.