THE PATRIOT PERSPECTIVE
Which is the quintessential American holiday? The Fourth of July, our nation's recognized birthday? No, a typical Independence Day celebration now turns more toward recreation than to original customs of patriotic reflection on the debt we owe both to our Founding Fathers and our Heavenly Father. But Thanksgiving...this holiday, more than any other commemorated in our country, has retained -- even if in attenuated form -- the sentiments present from its first celebration on our shores. On Thanksgiving, we still stop to give thanks for our blessings; we still take pause to hold our family and friends dearest in our hearts; and we still acknowledge, expressly or implicitly, the Author of life and liberty who has heaped bounties on us beyond our deserving.
In peril, privation and war, or in plenty -- during commemorations that often mingled acknowledgment of both -- we have from the beginning freely gathered together to send up thanks and praise to God for past blessings, and to implore His continued favor. Other countries may have limited observances of thankfulness, but ours is unique among the world's nations in weaving thanksgiving to God, observed officially at critical junctures, as a joining thread in our country's life.
Is this a revelation today? Certainly, the elections earlier this month demonstrated that we Americans are split rather than joined over this issue -- between those who agree with our Founders that we in the United States are a free nation under God, and those imbued in a relentlessly materialistic worldview that appeals mainly to government edicts as solutions. Post-election vitriol has descended into anti-Christian bigotry -- masquerading as enlightenment -- which assuredly yields far less tolerance and freedom than systems rooted in Christian principles. Indeed, we contend that the spirit of true gratefulness stands directly opposed to the mentality of aggrieved entitlement, accounting for much of the dissension in politics these days. In this respect, "I deserve it!" cannot possibly be any further from "Thank you, Lord." Moreover, we contend that thanksgiving is essential to continuing liberty in our blessed land.
Our nation's success in the world is not haphazard, not happenstance, and not merely the result of our own efforts. No, God has shepherded us from the first days colonists walked this new land -- and we put our country at risk whenever we forget this truth -- that we owe our Lord thanks and obedience. Our forebears knew that God judges nations and communities as well as individuals. They knew, too, that we are responsible for our own attitudes of thanksgiving and also for gathering together to offer prayers of gratitude.
The celebration we hark back to as the "First Thanksgiving" was the Pilgrims' three-day feast in early November of 1621. The Pilgrims were Puritans, Calvinist Protestants who rejected the institutional Church of England, embarking from Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620, sailing for a new world that offered the promise of both civil and religious liberty. For almost three months, 102 seafarers braved harsh elements to arrive off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, in late November of 1620. On December 11, before disembarking at Plymouth Rock, the voyagers signed the "Mayflower Compact," often cited as America's original document of civil government and the first to introduce self-government. While still anchored at Provincetown harbor, their pastor, John Robinson, counseled, "You are become a body politic...and are to have only them for your...governors which yourselves shall make choice of." Governor William Bradford described the Mayflower Compact as "a combination made by them before they came ashore...occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall.... That when they came a shore they would use their owne libertie; for none had power to command them...."
Upon landing in America, the Pilgrims conducted a prayer service, then quickly turned to building shelters. Starvation and sickness during the ensuing New England winter killed almost half their population, but through prayer and hard work, with the assistance of their Indian friends, the Pilgrims reaped a rich harvest in the summer of 1621. The settlers knew clearly that their new-world enterprise sought civil and religious liberties, but, disastrously, under pressure from investors funding their colony, they reluctantly organized their efforts communally, holding all fruit of their labors in common. Predictably, their work yielded little success, and Plymouth Colony was in danger of foundering after two years. Bradford recorded in his history of the colony, when Plymouth's leaders regained their right senses: "At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number."
Thus, the first Thanksgiving to God in the Calvinist tradition in Plymouth Colony was celebrated during the summer of 1623, when the colonists declared a Thanksgiving holiday after their crops were saved by much-needed rainfall. And the reorganization of their labors toward ownership and property rights set them on the proper path to reaping continual rewards. Families working together primarily for their own betterment were freer -- and were better able to pay off the investors. (Conventional commentary fractures property rights from civil and religious liberty; the canard is to thoughtlessly murmur of a political position termed "fiscally conservative" but "socially liberal" -- a distinction our forebears would find strange, indeed. As the Plymouth Pilgrims' experience demonstrated, liberty and virtue infusing governing arrangements are the sole sure guarantors of private property.)
By the mid-17th century, the custom of autumnal Thanksgivings was established throughout New England. Observance of Thanksgiving Festivals spread to other colonies during the American Revolution, and the Continental Congresses, cognizant of the need for a warring country's continuing grateful entreaties to God, proclaimed yearly Thanksgiving days during the Revolutionary War, from 1777 to 1783.
To those who insist nowadays that religious observances are improper in government acts, despite their centrality during Revolutionary days, in one of the first acts of the new constitutional government, our Founding Fathers officially recognized the importance (and rectitude) of a day for citizens to come together giving God thanks for our nation's blessings. After adopting the Constitution's Bill of Rights, Congress approved a motion for proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving. Both chambers of Congress asked President George 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."
Washington set his signature to the first day of thanks for the liberties enshrined in our new Constitution, writing:
"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....
"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 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 supplication 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 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 3d day of October, AD 1789."
As president, John Adams followed the custom of declaring national days of thanks, and James Madison called for three national observances of fasting and grateful prayer for deliverance during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams refused to continue the practice of proclaiming a day of national thanksgiving, in a foretaste of the taint of impermissibility current-day "progressives" attach to acknowledgment of God as Provider of our country's blessings.
After 1815, there were no more annual Thanksgiving proclamations until our citizens were imperiled by the War Between the States, when Abraham Lincoln declared November 26, 1863, a Day of Thanksgiving, calling for prayer and thanksgiving for the nation, saying in part, "...[It is] announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.... It has seemed to me fit and proper that...[God's blessings] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people."
For the following 75 years, every subsequent president repeated that proclamation until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day to a week earlier than had been tradition, to lengthen the growing pre-Christmas consumer frenzy. Two years later, Congress returned the celebration to its traditional date, in 1941 permanently setting the fourth Thursday of each November as our official national Thanksgiving.
So stand our nation's Thanksgiving Day observances -- honored annually, almost perfunctorily, and not directly responding to particular events endangering our country. We have much to be thankful for as a nation this Thanksgiving, 2004. Unlike the Puritan colonists of Plymouth and the Revolutionary colonials, we are rarely poised on the perilous edge of hunger and death. Marking more than three years since the 9/11 attacks, we have experienced minimal follow-on assaults from the Jihadi enemies bent on our destruction. And our fellow countrymen, U.S. troops, remaining in harm's way abroad the better to protect us, are atop the list for our heartfelt gratitude.
Nonetheless, these times are treacherous. Such too were the times in which we initiated our common thanksgiving commemorations. However, our ancestors appreciated that liberty and thanksgiving are of a piece. Ironically, on the south bank of Washington's Tidal Basin, etched in the marble of the Jefferson Memorial, is Jefferson the religious resister's immutable admonition about the origin of liberty -- "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?" We must offer God thanks for our liberties, which are the chiefest of our blessings. But we must also be free to be fully thankful, as a nation.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Regarding our Thanksgiving edition (as with our Easter and Christmas editions), we take leave from the rigors of research and analysis of contemporaneous news, policy and opinion in order to focus on an eternal message, indeed a Christian message. To our Patriot readers of faiths other than Christianity, we hope that this edition serves to deepen your understanding of our faith -- the faith of our Founders. Permission granted to reprint or forward this edition of The Federalist Patriot.