In recent years I have expanded my practice of reading this proclamation personally to include reading it aloud to my family before we say grace and sit down to our Thanksgiving meal.
The man known as the father of our nation proclaimed:
“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…. 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…”
Just weeks after the Bill of Rights was sent to the states for ratification and during a time when their adoption was still very much in question, Washington recognized and called on Americans to thank God for rights that too many Americans today don’t understand – and are even willing to sacrifice – like religious liberty.
He went on:
“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 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 … and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord, to promote the knowledge and practice of the true religion and virtue, and the increase 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.”
Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation, much like the man himself, is profound in both brevity and eloquence. Yet, the greatest value to the modern reader might just be the stark contrast it provides between our founding generation’s vision for their infant nation and the wandering prodigal son into which we have grown. Indeed, Washington repeatedly referenced the Divine as the source of our rights, peace, and prosperity.
Perhaps most shocking to many Americans today is Washington’s specific admonition that that “good government” would promote “the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.” For Washington, religious liberty didn’t mean government neutrality toward religion. To him and his fellow founders, religion, virtue, and liberty were inexorably linked.
Consider some of the other fundamental realities in Washington’s call to gratitude: there is a God; that God is not neutral in the affairs of men and nations; unity through gratitude to our Creator; Americans as individuals and collectively have duties to perform; that government should be a blessing to the people through wise, just, and constitutional laws.
Those concepts summarize volumes of self-evident truths found elsewhere in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. These are the birthright of our nation upon which a national renewal could be built.
Despite our nation’s shortcomings there is much for which to be thankful. We still enjoy more freedom, peace, and prosperity than any people in the world. If we are to maintain these for ourselves and our posterity we could start by reclaiming our national identity through renewed respect for our founding principles, like religious liberty, and yes, even the imperfect men like George Washington who imparted them to us.
If so, future generations might consider us among the blessings for which they are thankful. Again, in Washington’s words:
“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.”