“Go on, then, in your generous enterprise with gratitude to Heaven for past success, and confidence of it in the future.” –Samuel Adams
THE CHARACTER OF THANKSGIVING
Which of our country’s many blessings should we be most grateful for? Certainly, chief among these blessings is the genius and intrepidity of our Founding Fathers – humanly flawed men, to be sure, but nonetheless brilliant, resilient, and God-fearing.
Consider the circumstances of our country’s first Thanksgiving Day celebrated after our Declaration of Independence. The first national Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued by the revolutionary Continental Congress on November 1, 1777, expressed gratitude for the colonials’ October victory over British General Burgoyne at Saratoga. Authored by Samuel Adams, its one sentence of 360 words reads in part: “Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received…together with penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor; and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance…it is therefore recommended…to set apart Thursday the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise, that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feeling of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor…acknowledging with gratitude their obligations to Him for benefits received….To prosper the means of religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’.”
On Wednesday, December 17th, General George Washington issued general orders including the following: “Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General directs that the army remain in its present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and Brigades. And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.”
Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn’s diary entry for December 18th described the want and privation shrouding Washington’s troops, despite their military victories: “This is Thanksgiving Day. God knows we have very little to keep it with, this being the third day we have been without flour or bread, and are living on a high, uncultivated hill, in huts and tents, lying on the cold ground. Upon the whole I think all we have to be thankful for is that we are alive and not in the grave with many of our friends.”
For our nation, Thanksgiving has been best celebrated in the shadow of want, and thus Thanksgiving shows the best of our character. We recount the origins of our Day of Thanksgiving that we may celebrate the holiday as our forebears did, in humble acknowledgment and heartfelt gratitude for God’s many blessings upon His people and our nation, and that we may focus respectfully on the origins of our freedom.
The celebration we now popularly regard as “The First Thanksgiving” was the Pilgrims’ three-day feast celebrated in early November of 1621. Thanksgiving alone among American religious holidays derives in the main from Puritan observances. Christmas, Easter and saints’ days trace to origins in other Christian faiths, and although all these festive celebrations have developed an essentially American stamp, Thanksgiving alone is the quintessentially American holiday.
The Pilgrims were Puritans. They were America’s Calvinist Protestants – those who rejected the institutional Church of England and embarked 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, prior to disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they 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 ashore 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 first Thanksgiving to God in the Calvinist tradition in Plymouth Colony was actually celebrated during the summer of 1623, when the colonists declared a Thanksgiving holiday after their crops were saved by much-needed rainfall.
In 1630, while sailing to America, devout Puritan John Winthrop, later to become Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, meditated on the task before the colonists seeking religious liberty: “We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.” The earliest Americans knew that self-government rests equally on liberty and virtue – and that liberty and virtue are inseparable.
By the mid-17th century, the custom of autumnal Thanksgivings was established throughout New England. Observance of Thanksgiving festivals began to spread southward during the American Revolution, and the Continental Congresses, cognizant of the need for God’s continued blessing upon their warring country, proclaimed yearly Thanksgiving days during the Revolutionary War, from 1777 to 1783. They then officially recognized the importance of a day for giving thanks for our nation’s blessings in one of the first acts of the constitutional government. Soon after adopting the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, a motion in Congress to initiate the proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving was approved. 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 thus penned the following words, then set his signature to the first day of thanks for the liberties enshrined in our new Constitution:
“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….
"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 …[and] 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….
"Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, AD 1789.”
Our nation’s second president, John Adams, followed the custom of declaring national days of thanks, and James Madison, our fourth president, called for three national observances of fasting and grateful prayer for deliverance during the War of 1812.
Thanksgiving has, historically, brought forth the best in our nation and its citizens. Indeed, it is our great good hope at The Federalist that we disavow our recent dalliances with hollow self-aggrandizement; that we move beyond our petty penchant for materialism; that we truly and humbly give thanks to God for our myriad blessings; and that His hand may yet again guide us toward a future secure beyond the dangers and hardships of the current age.
President Ronald Reagan frequently invoked John Winthrop’s vision of America “as a city upon a hill.” In this and many other ways, he administered the moral clarity that, through trial and testing, restored our nation to its place of promise and prominence: “[O]ur cause must be to rediscover, reassert and reapply America’s spiritual heritage to our national affairs. Then with God’s help we shall indeed be as a city upon a hill with the eyes of all people upon us.”
But as John Winthrop warned, “if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
"Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity."
On this Day of Thanksgiving, we are again a nation at war. As our forebears remembered with every prayerful word of gratitude, even self-reliance is, at its root, reliance on Him. How can we give thanks when all we have is a gift of our Heavenly Father? On this day, then, let our gratitude center not upon the bounty so much as the blessing. And as Thanksgiving cultivates our perseverance, let us press on in our fight to keep secure the blessings of liberty.
"Go on, then, in your generous enterprise with gratitude to Heaven for past success, and confidence of it in the future. For my own part, I ask no greater blessing than to share with you the common danger and common glory … that these American States may never cease to be free and independent.” –Samuel Adams
On this Thanksgiving Day, especially, we ask that you pray for our Patriot Armed Forces standing in harm’s way around the world in defense of our liberty, and for the families awaiting their safe return.
As always, it is an honor and privilege to serve you as editor and publisher of The Federalist. We thank your for your continued support, and we’re humbled to count you among our readers. On behalf of our Advisory Committee and staff, thank you, and may God bless you and your family.
Lex et Libertas – Semper Vigilo, Paratus, et Fidelis! Mark Alexander, Publisher (Permission to reprint and/or forward is hereby granted.)