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The History and Legacy of Our National Thanksgiving

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and praise His name. For the LORD is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations.” —Psalm 100:4-5

Each year, our family observes with due reverence eight national historic days which are irrevocably linked to American Liberty and the Founding of our Republic: George Washington Day, Patriots Day honoring generations of American Patriots, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Constitution Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I invite you to read this brief history of our national celebration of Thanksgiving.

Introduced into the New World by European explorers, settlers and Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was and remains a time set aside for expressing gratitude to our Creator for His manifold blessings.

The earliest record of a thanksgiving in America is 1541, at the behest of Spanish explorer Coronado at Palo Duro Canyon in what is now Texas. French Protestant colonists at Charlesfort (now Parris Island, South Carolina) held a thanksgiving service in 1564. In 1607, the Jamestown settlers held thanksgiving at Cape Henry, Virginia, and there are other early records of such hallowed observances.

The first call for an annual Thanksgiving was at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, in 1619, when Captain John Woodlief and 38 settlers aboard the ship Margaret proclaimed, “We ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacion in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

But the contemporary celebration of Thanksgiving across our nation has its roots in the first “harvest feast” celebrated in 1621 by religious refugees, Pilgrims, who established the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in the year 1620. It is that iconic event which is most directly associated with the current traditions for our national Day of Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims

Who were these “freedom men”?

They were Puritan separatists – Calvinist Protestants, most under the leadership of pastor John Robinson, church elder William Brewster, and William Bradford. They rejected the institutional Church of England, believing that worshipping God must originate freely in the individual soul, without coercion. Not only were Puritans challenging the church; because it was headed by the monarch, they were also confronting the government – a courageous act which helps explain their willingness to risk a perilous voyage to America.

Suffering persecution and imprisonment in England for their beliefs, these separatists fled to Holland in 1609. There, they found the spiritual liberty they sought, but it was with a cultural backdrop of a disjointed economy and a dissolute, corrupt society, which tempted their children to stray from faith. Determined to protect their families from such spiritual and cultural degradation, in 1618 the Puritans began preparations to return to Plymouth, England, where they arranged for passage to the New World.

Those in Holland boarded the 50-year old 60-ton vessel, Speedwell, which departed Delfshaven in July of 1620. When it reached Southampton, it joined a larger ship, the 100-foot Mayflower, and the two made sail together with 120 Puritans on August 15th. But the Speedwell soon began taking on water and the two ships diverted to Dartmouth harbor, where it was determined that Speedwell was untrustworthy. It was decided that 102 of the original 120 passengers would depart on the Mayflower for a solo voyage.

Their long and dangerous voyage was funded by the London Company, the “merchant adventurers” (investors) whose investment objective was to establish a communal plantation “company” upon which the “planters” would be obligated to work for seven years in order to return the investment with premium. “The adventurers [and] planters do agree that every person that goeth being aged 16 years [and] upward … be accounted a single share…. The persons transported [and] ye adventurers shall continue their joint stock [and] partnership together, ye space of 7 years … during which time, all profits [and] benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remain still in ye common stock…. That all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provision out of ye common stock [and] goods…. That at ye end of ye 7 years, ye capital [and] profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods and chattels, be equally divided betwixt ye adventurers, and planters.”

On September 6th, 102 Puritans and 30 crew members departed on the Mayflower for America, a place that offered the promise of both civil and religious liberty. Among those in command of the expedition were Christopher Martin, designated by the Merchant Adventurers to act as Governor, and Myles Standish, who would be the colony’s military leader.

Their destination was Virginia’s Jamestown settlement, but in transit, the Mayflower was blown more than 400 miles off course. After an arduous 65 day journey, the first land was sighted on November 9th. In gratitude, William Brewster led them in singing Psalm 100. After confirming that the area was Cape Cod within the New England territory, they attempted to sail around the cape toward the Hudson River, but after encountering shallows and shoals, they turned around and anchored in Provincetown Harbor.

On November 21, 1620, prior to disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they created and signed the Mayflower Compact, America’s original document of civil government. It was the first to introduce self-government, and a foundational inspiration for the Declaration of Independence and it’s subordinate guidance, the United States Constitution. William Bradford, who would become Plymouth Colony’s second Governor, later described the Compact as “a combination … that when they came a shore they would use their owne libertie; for none had power to command them.”

Bradford kept an extraordinary detailed journal of the first 30 years of Plimoth (Plymouth) Plantation life, which is today considered by historians to be the preeminent text on 17th century American History. His 270-page vellum-bound manuscript was well written in plain but vivid language, which Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison aptly described as an account of the “spiritual ancestors of all Americans,” the first generation of American evangelicals. The reference to the Mayflower passengers as “pilgrims” appeared in Bradford’s account.

Bradford described his fellow Pilgrims thusly: “They shook off the yoke of anti-christian bondage, and as ye Lord’s free people, joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, in ye fellowship of ye Gospel, to walk in all his ways, made known or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.”

In retrospect, having been blown far off course from Jamestown proved to be providential. The settlers at Jamestown were Anglicans, members of the official Church of England, and Jamestown was governed by the precepts and appointees of those whom the Separatist Pilgrims wanted to escape. Thus, America was not founded by slaveowners, but by those who establish a compact that would become the basis for American Liberty.

Landfall in the New World

Upon making landfall, the Pilgrims conducted a prayer service and quickly turned to building shelters.

William Bradford wrote in the third person, as was customary: “Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees [and] blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast [and] furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles [and] miseries therof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente. And no marvell if they were thus joyefull, seeing wise Seneca was so affected with sailing a few miles on ye coast of his owne Italy; as he affirmed, that he had rather remaine[d] twentie years on his way by land, then pass by sea to any place in a short time; so tedious [and] dreadfull was ye same unto him.”

He continued: “But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considers ye same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by yt which wente before), they had now no friends to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. … Let it also be considered what weake hopes of supply [and] succoure they left behinde them, yt might bear up their minds in this sade condition and trialls they were under; and they could not but be very smale. It is true, indeed, ye affections [and] love of their brethren at Leyden was cordiall [and] entire towards them, but they had little power to help them, or them selves; and how ye case stode betweene them [and] ye marchants at their coming away, hath already been declared. What could not sustaine them but ye spirite of God [and] his grace? May not [and] ought not the children of these fathers rightly say : Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this willdernes; but they cried unto ye Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie. Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good, [and] his mercies endure for ever.”

In the month after making landfall, several exploratory groups set out to look for additional settlement sites. On December 16th, they encountered tribal people near an abandoned village known as Patuxet by the native Wampanoag people. The natives fled, but returned the next day and attacked the settlers, who used firearms to repel them.

There was no more contact with native peoples for months, but anticipating future relations was under a dark cloud of conflicts with previous explorers, particularly Thomas Hunt who, in 1615, had kidnapped 20 people from Patuxet and another seven from nearby Nausett. Hunt attempted to sell them as slaves in Europe, and notably, one of those he abducted was Tisquantum (also known as Squanto), who would become allied with Plymouth Colony.

The Wampanoag’s ancestors had inhabited the continent for more than 12,000 years, and according to some traditional native teachings, since time began. But the inhabitants of Patuxet had mostly perished, as had those of many other regional tribes, probably the result of fulminating smallpox infection for which they had no immunity. The disease was introduced by European fishermen who came ashore on Cape Cod in 1618.

By 1620, some of the native people who would befriend the Pilgrims, including Squanto, had already traveled to Europe and back, were familiar with the organizers of the Mayflower voyage, and could speak English. Wampanoag chief Ousamequin offered the new arrivals a friendly alliance, motivated in large part by his desire to enlist the colony’s support against Wampanoag enemies, the Narragansetts.

A Brutal First Winter

In the Fall of 1620, the Pilgrims and crew committed all their belongings to a “comone wealth.” Under harrowing conditions, they persisted through prayer and hard work, but the winter of 1620-21 was devastating. Only 47 of the original 102 Pilgrims survived. At one point in that dark winter, only a half-dozen were healthy enough to care for the rest. Bradford wrote, “Of these one hundred persons who came over in this first ship together, the greatest half died in the general mortality, and most of them in two or three months’ time.”

However, in 1621, with the help of Ousamequin’s Wampanoags in the region, the growing season was productive. In the Spring, Patuxet tribe native Squanto came among the Pilgrims and showed them how to catch fish, plant corn, trap beaver, and was their interpreter with the other Indian tribes.

Bradford described Squanto as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” He added: “The settlers … began to plant their corn, in which service Squanto stood them in good stead, showing them how to plant it and cultivate it. He also told them that unless they got fish to manure this exhausted old soil, it would come to nothing. … In the middle of April plenty of fish would come up the brook … and (he) taught them how to catch it.”

At summer’s end in 1621, Bradford wrote: “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion.”

The First Harvest Thanksgiving Feast

In addition to their regular expressions of reverence and thanksgiving to God, as Fall approached, the surviving Pilgrims had enough produce to hold a three day “harvest feast.” That feast was described in the journal of Edward Winslow: “God be praised we had a good increase. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. … At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time, with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

(Notably, a year later Chief Massasoit became ill, and Winslow visited and tended to his illness. Massasoit thankfully regained health, which contributed to a peace that lasted more than 50 years. Winslow was especially grateful, because the Indian tradition was such that if a person treated a chief and the chief died, that person died too.)

Ben Franklin wrote of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving: “There is a tradition that in the planting of New England, the first settlers met with many difficulties and hardships, as is generally the case when a civiliz’d people attempt to establish themselves in a wilderness country. Being so piously dispos’d, they sought relief from heaven by laying their wants and distresses before the Lord in frequent set days of fasting and prayer. Constant meditation and discourse on these subjects kept their minds gloomy and discontented, and like the children of Israel there were many dispos’d to return to the Egypt which persecution had induc’d them to abandon…”

Franklin continued: “At length, when it was proposed in the Assembly to proclaim another fast, a farmer of plain sense rose and remark’d that the inconveniences they suffer’d, and concerning which they had so often weary’d heaven with their complaints, were not so great as they might have expected, and were diminishing every day as the colony strengthen’d; that the earth began to reward their labour and furnish liberally for their subsistence; that their seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate healthy, and above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious. … He therefore thought that reflecting and conversing on these subjects would be more comfortable and lead more to make them contented with their situation; and that it would be more becoming the gratitude they ow’d to the divine being, if instead of a fast they should proclaim a thanksgiving. His advice was taken, and from that day to this, they have in every year observ’d circumstances of public felicity sufficient to furnish employment for a Thanksgiving Day, which is therefore constantly ordered and religiously observed.”

The Collectivist Plantation Plan

The Pilgrims endured another harsh winter in 1621, but they had put up enough stores to survive.

Endeavoring to improve the production at Plymouth Plantation for its second growing season in 1622, Governor Bradford implemented a collectivist policy to increase production by allotting each family a plot of land, and mandated, as described in the bylaws, that “all profits [and] benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means” must be forfeited to a common storehouse in order that “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provision out of ye common stock [and] goods.”

In theory, their governor thought the colony would thrive because each family would receive equal share of produce without regard to their contribution. Unfortunately, then as always, collectivism only works in theory, and the new policy almost destroyed the Plymouth settlement. Indeed, collectivism is antithetical to human nature, and destined to fail, as Plato’s student Aristotle observed in 350 BC: “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.”

In 1622, after abysmal results, Bradford realized that his collectivist plan had undermined the incentive to produce. He wrote, “The failure of that experiment of communal service … the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth … was found to breed much confusion and discontent; and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit…. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense…. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labor, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them.”

The women “who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it.”

“If all were to share alike, and all were to do alike,” wrote Bradford, “then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself.”

The Free Enterprise Plan

Responding to the failed economic plantation plan, the Colony leaders “began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want,” Bradford recorded in his journal. “At length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household … So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number.”

They decided to trade their collectivist plan for a free market approach, and in 1623, Bradford wrote, “This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willing into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability, and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression. … Instead of famine now God gave them plenty and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. … Any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

Property ownership and families freely laboring on their own behalf replaced the “common store,” but only after their ill-advised experiment with communism nearly wiped out the entire settlement.

The colony celebrated a much greater Harvest and Thanksgiving Day in 1623 as called for by Bradford’s proclamation: “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”

Bradford concluded: “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.”

He wrote in poem: “But them a place God did provide, In wilderness, and them did guide, Unto the American shore, Where they made way for many more. They broke the ice themselves alone, And so became a stepping-stone, For all others who, in like case, Were glad to find a resting place.”

Of those who made the perilous voyage but lost their lives prior to the second Thanksgiving, Bradford wrote: “lt was answered that all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages. It was granted the dangers were great, but not desperate. The difficulties were many, but not invincible. For though there were many of them likely, yet they were not certain. It might be sundry of the things feared might never befall; others by provident care and the use of good means might in a great measure be prevented; and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience might either be borne or overcome. True it was that such attempts were not to he made and undertaken without good ground and reason, not rashly or lightly as many have done for curiosity or hope of gain, etc. But their condition was not ordinary, their ends were good and honourable, their calling lawful and urgent; and therefore they might expect the blessing of God in their proceeding. Yea, though they should lose their lives in this action, yet might they have comfort in the same and their endeavours would be honourable.”

The enduring lesson for all, is that after the Pilgrims were given liberty and incentive to be industrious, the colony thrived, and by 1624, production was so abundant that the they exported corn back to England. For generations since, to the extent men have been set at perfect liberty to establish free enterprise, to produce goods and services without having profits seized for redistribution, our nation has thrived.

That notwithstanding, the collectivist communal model became the political and economic basis of 19th century communism, and the tragic and lethal rise of 20th century reigns of tyranny and terror. While that model collapsed in the former Soviet Union, it is still oppressively enforced by brutal dictators in China, North Korea and other Asian nations. Today, even many Americans still fail to understand the “tragedy of the commons,” and embrace socialist tyranny.

The Pilgrims’ Legacy of Civil Liberty

At the Bicentennial Celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, December 22, 1820, the great statesman and orator, Daniel Webster, declared in his “Plymouth Oration,” that Plymouth was “the spot where the first scene of our history was laid.”

He said: “We have come to this Rock, to record here our homage for our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings; our gratitude for their labors; our admiration of their virtues; our veneration for their piety; and our attachment to those principles of civil and religious liberty, which they encountered the dangers of the ocean, the storms of heaven, the violence of savages, disease, exile, and famine, to enjoy and to establish. … We are on the spot where the first scene of our history was laid; where the hearths and altars of New England were first placed; where Christianity, and civilization … made their first lodgment, in a vast extent of country, covered with a wilderness.”

Of what those to come should hold fast, Webster concluded: “Advance, then, ye future generations! We would hail you, as you rise in your long succession, to fill the places which we now fill, and to taste the blessings of existence where we are passing, and soon shall have passed, our own human duration. … We greet your accession to the great inheritance which we have enjoyed. We welcome you to the blessings of good government and religious liberty. We welcome you to me treasures of science and the delights of learning. We welcome you to the transcendent sweets of domestic life, to the happiness of kindred, and parents, and children. We welcome you to the immeasurable blessings of rational existence, the immortal hope of Christianity, and the light of everlasting truth!”

The Puritans seeded democratic self-government and free enterprise in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but demonstrated much of the same religious intolerance they had fled in England. Having broken ground for religious Liberty, at least for themselves, in the 20 years following the establishment of Plymouth Plantation, more than 25,000 men, women, and children followed them to the New World, seeking first and foremost, religious Liberty. The second great immigration of Puritans came after Charles II was restored to the Crown in 1660, and Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan reformists fled for their lives. They brought with them a much more legalistic religious intolerance, and they displayed bigotry for those who did not practice their particular Christian traditions and practices.

However, the promise of civil and religious Liberty drew hundreds of thousands of other seekers to East Coast settlements, and they formed the bedrock of our nation. The crossroads of civil and religious Liberty was outlined in the central tenet of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The assertion of “unalienable rights” is the founding tenet for Liberty and the Unalienable Rights of Man as “endowed by their Creator,” not the gift of men or their political institutions.

That eternal truth is the basis for the enumerated restrictions against government outlined in the First Amendment of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The prohibition against any “establishment of religion” appears first in order of importance, because our nation was largely founded by those seeking Liberty from oppression of the wedded church and state of England.

Though we are not a “Christian nation” as some would suggest, clearly most of our Founders understood that American Liberty has its roots in the Liberty of the Christian Gospel. The Father of our Country, George Washington, wrote, “To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal Instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete Success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude and Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.”

Historic Thanksgiving Proclamations

During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress designated days of thanksgiving each year. The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was made in 1777:

“FOR AS MUCH 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, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success: It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and 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.”

Of that proclamation, Samuel Adams wrote to another Declaration signer, Richard Henry Lee, noting the specificity of the language that, “the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and join … their supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ.”

After British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Congress proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving on October 11, 1782: “It being the indispensable duty of all nations … to offer up their supplications to Almighty God … the United States in Congress assembled … do hereby recommend it to the inhabitants of these states in general, to observe … the last Thursday … of November next, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving to God for all his mercies.”

Massachusetts’ Patriot Governor John Hancock, former President of the Continental Congress, proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving, November 8, 1783: “The Citizens of these United States have every Reason for Praise and Gratitude to the God of their salvation … I do … appoint … the 11th day of December next (the day recommended by the Congress to all the States) to be religiously observed as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, that all the people may then assemble to celebrate … that he hath been pleased to continue to us the Light of the Blessed Gospel … That we also offer up fervent supplications … to cause pure Religion and Virtue to flourish … and to fill the world with His glory.”

In 1789, after adopting the Bill of Rights to our Constitution, among the first official acts of Congress was approving a motion for proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving, recommending that citizens gather together and give thanks to God for their new nation’s blessings.

The first official Thanksgiving Day proclamation by the United States of America was set forth by President George Washington on October 3, 1789:

“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 tranquility, 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 shown 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.”

Then-governor Thomas Jefferson followed with this 1789 proclamation in Virginia: “[I] appoint … a day of public Thanksgiving to Almighty God … to [ask] Him that He would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; That He would grant to His church, the plentiful effusions of Divine Grace, and pour out His Holy Spirit on all Ministers of the Gospel; That He would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth … and that He would establish these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.”

Likewise, Gov. John Hancock proclaimed, “[I] appoint … a day of public thanksgiving and praise … to render to God the tribute of praise for His unmerited goodness towards us … [by giving to] us … the Holy Scriptures which are able to enlighten and make us wise to eternal salvation. And [to] present our supplications … that He would forgive our manifold sins and cause the benign religion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to be known, understood, and practiced among all the inhabitants of the earth.”

After the War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent, President James Madison proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving, March 4, 1815: “The Senate and House of Representatives … signified their desire that a day may … be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a Day of Thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgments to Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace. No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. … His kind Providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected … them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days … In the arduous struggle … they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition… He … enabled them to assert their national rights and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies. And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land… I now recommend … a Day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of Thanksgiving and of their songs of praise. Given … in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifteen … James Madison.”

National Thanksgiving celebrations were irregularly proclaimed in the years that followed until the War Between the States. However, New York state adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom in 1817, and by the time of the “Civil War,” most states, whose constitutions boldly affirmed and proclaimed faith, had done the same.

On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed an “annual” National Day of Thanksgiving: “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend … they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and 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 the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

After 1863, presidents issued annual proclamations of Thanksgiving.

President Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged how rare America is in his National Day of Praise and Thanksgiving Proclamation, October 24, 1903: “During the last year the Lord has dealt bountifully with us… It behooves us not only to rejoice greatly because of what has been given us, but to accept it with a solemn sense of responsibility, realizing that under Heaven it rests with us ourselves to show that we are worthy to use aright what has thus been entrusted to our care. In no other place and at no other time has the experiment of government of the people, by the people, for the people, been tried on so vast a scale as here in our own country in the opening years of the 20th Century. Failure would not only be a dreadful thing for us, but a dreadful thing for all mankind, because it would mean loss of hope for all who believe in the power and the righteousness of liberty. Therefore, in thanking God for the mercies extended to us in the past, we beseech Him that He may not withhold them in the future.”

In 1941, with World War II on the horizon, the Senate and House approved the fourth Thursday of November as a National Day of Thanksgiving, perpetuating the observance annually. And thus, we celebrate in gratitude and reverence.

Thanksgiving and our Legacy of Liberty

For perspective on Thanksgiving and our national legacy of Liberty, I turn to the greatest of the 20th century presidents, Ronald Reagan. For those too young to remember the most recent of the great American presidents, understand that part of President Reagan’s greatness was that he was a uniter of people, so much so that he was re-elected in 1984 by historic margins, winning 49 of 50 states and losing only Minnesota, the home state of his opponent Walter Mondale, Carter’s former vice president – and by only 3,800 votes at that. Oh, and of course, he lost the District of Columbia. No other candidate in American history has matched Reagan’s 525 electoral votes, and it was because he was a genuine leader.

In his first Thanksgiving proclamation, President Reagan wrote: “America has much for which to be thankful. The unequaled freedom enjoyed by our citizens has provided a harvest of plenty to this Nation throughout its history. In keeping with America’s heritage, one day each year is set aside for giving thanks to God for all of His blessings. … As we celebrate Thanksgiving … We should reflect on the full meaning of this day as we enjoy the fellowship that is so much a part of the holiday festivities. Searching our hearts, we should ask what we can do as individuals to demonstrate our gratitude to God for all He has done. Such reflection can only add to the significance of this precious day of remembrance. Let us recommit ourselves to that devotion to God and family that has played such an important role in making this a great Nation, and which will be needed as a source of strength if we are to remain a great people.”

In his last Thanksgiving message to our nation, President Reagan said of gratitude: “We Americans have so much for which to be thankful… But prosperity is not an end in itself. It helps us pay attention to the more important things: raising our children as we want them to be raised, helping others in need, and bringing nations together in peace… We will give thanks for these and one thing more: our freedom. Yes, in America, freedom seems like the air around us: It’s there; it’s sweet, though we rarely give it a thought. Yet as the air fills our lungs, freedom fills our souls. It gives breath to our laughter and joy. It gives voice to our songs. It gives us strength as we race for our dreams. Think of those around the world who cannot bow their heads in prayer without risking their lives… And then think of how blessed we are to be Americans.

He Concluded, "As we gather together this Thanksgiving to ask the Lord’s blessings…let us thank Him for our peace, prosperity, and freedom.”

This, then and now, is the genuine spirit of Thanksgiving.

Crediting the Pilgrims for chartering the path of American Liberty through self-government, President Reagan made frequent reference to the “shining city upon a hill.”

As Reagan explained: “The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.”

Closing his Farewell Address in 1989, President Reagan asked, “And how stands the city on this winter night?”

Contemplating our Legacy of Liberty this Thanksgiving, more than three decades after President Reagan left office, how stands the city on our watch?

Fellow Patriots, at no time in the last century has there been a more vicious and perilous domestic assault upon Liberty and Rule of Law enshrined in our Constitution, by those who are endeavoring to institute the rule of men, the irrevocable terminus of the latter being tyranny. An authoritarian cadre has risen, and is waging frontal assaults on our most fundamental rights and freedoms of “We, the People,” the Unalienable Rights of Man as fully “endowed by [our] Creator.”

The only thing sacred to the current statist hegemony seeking to undermine our Constitution, is power.

But take heart and stand fast and firm, tyranny is temporal, Liberty is eternal. As George Washington wrote in the darkest days of our American Revolution, “We should never despair, our Situation before has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again. If new difficulties arise, we must only put forth new Exertions and proportion our Efforts to the exigency of the times.” Of such exertions, he wrote, “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 favors.”

Of the incredible obstacles which had been overcome in the American Revolution to establish Liberty, Washington observed, “The hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.” And of the charge to American Patriots then and now, Washington declared, “Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!”

Indeed it was then as it is now and will ever be.

So it is that on this Thanksgiving Day, we are called to pause and take respite in order to acknowledge the gift of Liberty, and the blessing of Divine intervention throughout the history of our great nation; in order to recommit ourselves to obeisance of His will; in order to express our gratitude and give Him all thanks and praise for the bounty which He has bestowed upon the United States of America – land of the free, home of the brave, that shining city on the hill; and in order to all the more humbly implore that He protect us and grant us favor in our struggle to defend Liberty, and extend that blessing to the next generation.

Brothers and sisters, especially in this season, contemplate all that is good and right: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Please join us in prayer for our nation’s Military Patriots, Veterans, and their families. I also ask the favor of your prayer for our mission to, first and foremost, support and defend our Republic’s Founding Principles – the irrevocable blessing of Liberty endowed by our Creator – and to keep lit and bright, the fires of freedom in the hearts and minds of our countrymen.

Thank you for the privilege of serving as editor and publisher of The Patriot Post.

On behalf of your Patriot team and our National Advisory Committee, have a peaceful Thanksgiving. God’s blessings upon you and your family, and our great nation.

Pro Deo et Libertate
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis

Mark Alexander

(Please forward this message to family and friends, or forward a link to this page (https://patriotpost.us/pages/284).)

Thanksgiving Resources

With your kids, take the “Thanksgiving Quiz.”

Our American historian friends, David and Jeanne Heidler, have written a delightful perspective on the Pilgrims, “The Plymouth Adventure.”

On gratitude and thanksgiving, Christian writer Paul Tripp recommends we contemplate “13 Thanksgiving Questions.”

Watch an excellent video on American Liberty, “We still hold these truths.”

For an instructive video on the origins of competing economic philosophies in American, beginning with the collectivist experiment at Plymouth Plantation, watch Larry Schweikart at PragerU.

For inspiration, enjoy Charlie Daniel’s My Beautiful America video, or read the words.

Finally, 2020 was the year of the ChiCom Virus pandemic, a year which resulted in the gross suppression of civil liberties, and for some, relentless fear. To that end, here are some quick reading resources to put our trials in proper perspective…

Martin Luther on Responding to Pandemics” penned almost 500 years ago.

C.S. Lewis on Living in Fearful Times,” in which he writes, “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”

Applying the Wisdom of C.S. Lewis to Pandemic Fears,” thoughts on fear from Lewis’s 1948 book, “On Living in an Atomic Age.”

Fear not! The Bible includes variations of the theme “Fear Not” 365 times. I found a version with 366 variations, and that must have been for leap year. In every case, the message is that our Creator has our back. Fear fades in the Light of Gratitude and Hope. Indeed, amid the daily din, being mindfully grateful for simple blessings and mercies pays rich dividends in the currency of hope.

Thanks be to God!

A footnote regarding William Bradford’s manuscript account “Of Plimoth Plantation”: After his death in 1657, his 30-year detailed record was passed down by family members for generations. In 1767, it came to storage in the tower of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. In 1775, when the British occupied the church and gutted it, the manuscript was taken and thought lost forever. In 1855 an American scholar studying Samuel Wilberforce’s 1844 “History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America,” recognized a quote as distinctly being from William Bradford’s “Of Plimoth Plantation” historical manuscript. Upon further research it was discovered that the manuscript was in the Bishop of London’s library at Fulham Palace. The bishop refused to surrender Bradford’s journal, but sent a handwritten copy to Boston where it was published for the first time in 1856. In the spring of 1897, England returned the manuscript to the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for permanent archiving by the State Library of Massachusetts in the Boston State House.

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“Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!” —George Washington

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