With Thanksgiving upon us and our thoughts focused on family, food, and football, it is right to pause and remember the solemn purpose for which the day was first set.
In September 1789, the first United States Congress convened under the recently ratified Constitution passed a resolution asking President Washington to designate a day for the new nation to give thanks for its founding. The president responded by issuing a proclamation declaring November 26, 1789, as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin.”
In his proclamation, issued in New York City on October 3, President Washington asked all Americans to devote the 26th of November to the service of God, “That we might all then unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks . . . [for all our blessings, including] . . . 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 . . . .”
Subsequent presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations, but the days and even the months of the celebrations varied. It wasn’t until the administration of Abraham Lincoln that Thanksgiving Day came to be a national holiday celebrated each year in November.
In early October 1863, with the pivotal victory at Gettysburg in mind, and just weeks before his address to dedicate the national cemetery there, President Lincoln issued a proclamation asking his fellow citizens “in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving . . . [and] . . . with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience . . . fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
In this time of fractious partisanship, it is essential to pause and give thanks for all the great and good things we have, with God’s help, been able to accomplish together as self-governing Americans. If we take that inspiring past to heart, we will be better able to overcome our present divisions and work together to restore and revitalize our unifying institutions of constitutional government. And if, with God’s help, we do succeed in this vital work, we then can enjoy again the peace, harmony, and tranquility that blesses a truly united people.
As Americans, we have a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day, and every single day of the year.
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