It is the one holiday that is most truly and powerfully ours as a nation.
At times, unfortunately, I think we can lose sight of the very essence of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is not simply about giving thanks for what we have. It is about giving thanks for a country that has enabled us to earn what we have, keep what we have earned and live the way we live because of its great and enduring foundational strengths. These foundational strengths include our constitution, and our commitment to property rights and the rule of law. They include the respect for the individual citizen. These might seem like core American features, but it was never inevitable that we would have managed to keep them for 200 plus years.
Bottom line: Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for the reality of America and the fact that year after year for more than two centuries, we as a people have been able to depend on this country as a peaceful and promising place.
Lincoln seemed to have this in mind when in the middle of the Civil War he invited the nation to set aside a day to give thanks (it wouldn’t become a Federal holiday until 1941).
The Civil War might seem a strange time to give thanks, but not if you are giving thanks for the very strengths that assured Lincoln that this country would endure past the tragedy and that its best days still lay ahead. Here’s part of what he wrote:
In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…
Let’s face it. Gratitude is a kind of discipline. It requires perceiving the good by recognizing all that could have gone wrong, all that you should never take for granted. To be grateful is to make a positive choice.
In Lincoln’s invitation to give thanks, he made the point that as bad as things obviously were, the important things like order, the law and a peaceable society had been maintained and liberty, the lifeblood of our nation, had not been disrupted. These are no small things, but he knew that we could easily overlook them if we didn’t make the positive choice to see them and to celebrate them.
Recently a 1795 reeded-edge United States penny was sold for $1.3 million dollars at auction. Across the top of the penny the words “Liberty” are written. What other country’s citizens can look back over the past 200 plus years and identify with the ideal of liberty and know that the promise of liberty has remained uninterrupted? -- No European can. No Asian can. No African can. No South American or Central American can. -- But an American can.
With all the talk of other nations eclipsing America with their rapid growth (i.e., China) or dynamic social policies (i.e., universal health care reform), it is easy to forget that these nations simply don’t have the incredible track record of stability, justice and just plain domestic peace that we do.
Every one of those countries has suffered horrible upheavals in their not-so-distant past in which members of their societies lost property and lost their lives because of tyranny. But if you lost your bounty in America in the last two hundred years, you couldn’t blame a corrupt state, a dictator or a communist ideology, it was almost always your own fault.
An interview with this year’s New York City marathon winner, Meb Keflizighi, in The Wall Street Journal drives this point home. You may remember that he is the man who one commentator originally said wasn’t really American. Well, if he isn’t American, I don’t know who qualifies. His family fled an Eritrean village and he arrived in America as a child where his dad worked many jobs and made sure the children learned English. It was here that he became a champion runner after a junior high school coach identified his great talent. He credits America’s opportunity and it’s stability for giving him the chance to focus and discipline his energies on becoming great. Here’s what he told The Journal:
You start on the bottom, work hard, and your dreams will come true—and that's what happened. We have a very successful family because my parents always emphasized using the opportunity you have to the maximum: 'There are a lot of people that don't have this opportunity, so make sure you use it.' That stuck in our head.
The opportunity that Meb is talking about wasn’t his family’s opportunity because of how good and talented they were, it was the opportunity that America itself affords anyone who is here.
Meb and his family saw it clearly because they only knew too well what opportunity doesn’t look like. And when you know what opportunity doesn’t look like and then find it, you “make sure you use it.”
Our American uniqueness and this opportunity should never be a reason to become complacent as a nation, but it should be a reason to celebrate and above all be thankful.
And remember, business and the business of holidays is always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.
John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert and president of the Marketing Department of America who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He is a frequent contributor to the Fox Forum.