Thanksgiving has been an American tradition for as long as there has been an America. In past years, we have cited presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, perhaps especially the first from President George Washington in 1789 and President Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable wartime proclamation in 1863.
This year, let us return to the wisdom of the Father of Our Country. In 1789, George Washington designated October 3 as “a day of public thanksgiving,” and indeed the world’s newest nation and nascent republic had many reasons for gratitude. Six years earlier, the United States had fought for and won its independence under Washington’s command as a confederation of sovereign states. Four years after that, with the nation on the brink of collapsing in disunity, a convention of statesmen crafted an enduring Constitution that would hold the nation together even its most riven internal conflicts.
Washington certainly grasped the novelty of this enterprise and the tenuous nature of this new compact. Every step Washington took set some form of precedent for all those who would follow, including this very proclamation. And Washington understood that — which is why he selflessly chose to become an American Cincinnatus, declining a lifetime role as president and making clear that the new Republic served its sovereign citizens as well as the Lord.
In doing so, Washington confirmed his status as a statesman rather than a warlord, and transformed the promise of self-governance by a sovereign citizenry into a new reality. And for this, as well as all of the other reasons Washington states in his proclamation, we Americans should always give thanks.
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 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 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 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 shewn 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.