Giving Thanks

If you think Independence Day is America’s defining holiday, think again. Thanksgiving deserves that title, hands-down.

Every one of our greatest national treasures, our liberty, enterprise, vitality, wealth, military power, global authority, flow from a surprising source: our ability to give thanks. Look back through history and you’ll see.

The people who sailed to our rough and forbidding shores wanted to lay claim not just to a raw wilderness, but also to an idea: A republic that encouraged liberty by venerating virtue — or to put it in less highfalutin terms, a place where people could do what they wanted because they could trust their neighbors.

Of course, mere liberty didn’t help the earliest settlers much. The colony at Roanoke vanished, presumably due to hardship and disease, and the first generation of European immigrants suffered staggering mortality rates. Yet legend has it that those who survived the first rough year in New England decided to do something unusual then and extremely unusual now. They stopped — not to mourn, commemorate, or rage against their fates — but to give thanks and share their meager stocks of food with local Indian tribes.

That celebration highlighted what would become this nation’s formulating virtues — with humility being first and foremost among them. Despite recent complaints around the world about American “arrogance,” we’re actually a modest people, willing to attribute our greatness to special blessings, credit Providence for our gifts, and dedicate ourselves to making full use of our bounty.

Humility begets generosity, another staple. Somewhere near you, somebody right now is trying to help the indigent and poor — providing food, shelter, clothing or simple kindness. Millions of Americans annually commit themselves to such good works, and no country on earth comes close to matching our record.

Finally comes the matter of faith. We believe. We believe in our destiny as a nation. We believe we have been called to do good, to spread the blessings of liberty and encourage the sense of trust upon which free societies depend.

To have faith is to believe in truth, believe that truth confers special power on those lucky enough to get a little insight, and to know in our hearts that all these things come from God, which is why we should never get too cocky about our successes.

This circle of virtues — from humility to God and back — explains why any American can rise from penury to greatness, and why all of us feel the tug of history’s call. It helps us understand why young men, thrust into combat operations a half-world away, can operate with brutal efficiency on a battlefield and then display jaw-dropping compassion the instant hostilities draw to a close. It accounts for the fact that Americans volunteer their services in every squalid encampment on this planet, and why the typical picture of an American features a smile. We know life is good.

Our virtues also help us shove aside adversity and create something glorious and new from the ashes of hardship and tragedy. Consider this singular Thanksgiving proclamation:

“The year that is drawing to its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties … others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften … the heart.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote those words in the midst of what then was the bloodiest year in American history, 1863. Yet despite a grueling and murderous war, he encouraged Americans “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November … as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father” and to extend a hand to “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” and to “heal the wounds of the nation and restore it … to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

No civilization in history has committed itself so fervently to giving thanks when things seemed bleakest and worst. In the poem written for John Kennedy’s inaugural, Robert Frost noted that our brashness — our faith — made us strong, but only after hardship broke down some of our natural stubborn pride and reserve:

Something we were withholding made us weak,
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith we found salvation in surrender.

That “surrender” part is especially apt. We surrender arrogance so we can enjoy the jaunty proceeds of being free. But there’s more:

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

And for a land ever caught up in the act of becoming, we give thanks — for the land, for the society strong and free — and most of all, for each other.

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