by John F. Di Leo
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26 of that year as a national day of Thanksgiving and prayer.
Various states continued to hold their own Thanksgiving celebrations on various fall dates until President Lincoln standardized it as the fourth Thursday in November (with one brief hiccup during the days of FDR, when he moved it up a week and then changed it back)… but it is good to consider that the Thanksgiving tradition that began unofficially with the earliest colonists – at St. Augustine, at Charles City County, at Plymouth – has been an officially declared part of our Constitutional American government since its very first year.
In light of modern America’s daily assault on Judeo-Christian religion, from lone crackpots to pop culture institutions, it is helpful to remember that this very religious celebration – the act of thanking Divine Providence for our many blessings – has indeed always been part of both the American cultural experience and American governmental policy.
There’s no way to make the convoluted claim that our Founding Fathers were opposed to religion in the public square, when we remember George Washington’s official presidential proclamation that this day, in his words, was “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.”
Despite the unbroken continuation of Thanksgiving celebrations in America since at least 1598, there have been changes in how it was celebrated. Pre-existing European harvest celebrations contributed, as did those of the American Indians already here. At some times it was the bounteous feast we know today; at others it was a day of fasting, particularly in the founding era, when Americans were so well-fed that a fast day really had meaning (think about it – for fasting to be significant for the majority of people, mass hunger and privation had to have already been largely conquered).
In our modern age of abundance – even the “poor” today have two televisions, cars, washing machines, their own homes – it is difficult to imagine that anyone would be thankful for life in those pre-technological days. No TV or radio? No running water? What on earth were they thankful for? Well, let’s think of it in their terms:
From the early settlers…
In an era in which many ships sank on the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic, these settlers survived the voyage. Surely that’s something for which to be grateful!
The settlers came from Europe, and their immune systems were shocked by the unfamiliar diseases of a new world. People talk all the time of the European diseases that the settlers unwittingly brought with them, causing epidemics among the native population, but we often forget that this issue cuts both ways. European settlers were unprepared for the yellow fever, smallpox, malaria, and other often fatal strains that they encountered here in the Americas. In an era in which so many were struck down by these illnesses, those who survived had good reason to count their blessings!
The settlers were far from home, but that means much more than just the homesickness of distance. It means they were far from sources of supply. What they forgot to bring along, or lost on the way, was likely gone for good, or at least for years. They had to make do with only the seed they brought with them; if that seed failed, there was no more to purchase at a general store. If metal tools rusted or broke, they had to make do with wood for months or years.
Today, when something breaks, or we discover we’ve forgotten something of importance, we can head to the local Home Depot or Menards, or to the Wal-Mart or Meijer, and pick up whatever we need. Maybe it’ll even be on sale! But not in those days, when supply wagons or ships came by once a year, if that, and in between, either you made do, or you… didn’t.
Oh yes, every time those settlers made it through another year in those roughest of conditions, they had good reason to be thankful. The Thanksgiving celebration of autumn in the new world was a powerful day of religious awareness and appreciation… not just for the latest Nintendo game or new clothes, but for their very lives.
…to the Founding Era
By the 1760s, the European settlers had conquered many of these hardships, or at least made great progress in that direction. Medical science was still in the dark ages, and such innovations as electricity and the internal combustion engine were still far in the future.
But our Founding Fathers had developed a new society on these shores. In the one and a half centuries since European colonies were first chartered on the Atlantic seaboard, towns and even cities sprang up from north to south… farms and plantations covered the coastline and gradually moved inland… this new world was being redefined as a country in its own right.
Or perhaps we should say “countries.” In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, each colony was its own country, distinctive in its population, conditions, sensibilities. The differences between Massachusetts and Virginia, between Rhode Island and South Carolina, were huge, and their residents thought of each other as foreigners – friendly foreigners, hopefully, but foreigners nonetheless.
So when, in the 1750s, a war between the British, the French, and some American Indian tribes united these colonists in battle, it was a new beginning for many. And when, in the 1760s, Britain’s method of paying for that war involved new taxes, levied by a distant king rather than by their locally elected burgesses in Williamsburg or Boston, they found new causes to be grateful… for new alliances with their neighbors, for new friendships and partnerships, as they united in opposition to the tyranny of a king who denied them their rights as Englishmen: to full representation in Parliament.
These disparate settlements were becoming one nation, even before they were united in revolution. So when the revolution came, and then when the Continental Congress of the Articles of Confederation gave way to the new Congress under the Constitution, it was the culmination of two centuries of development, growing together until the day when it would finally be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Our country was threatened by disease, by hostile Indian tribes, by the very elements. We dreamed of western expansion, frustrated by our distant king who was uninterested in such growth. We dreamed of free global trade, frustrated by a king who wanted to control our trading partners and route every transaction through London factors. We dreamed of free markets at home, allowing commercial expansion and the growth of cities, but with a baker’s dozen of independent colonial governments, there was just no way.
So when a confrontation could no longer be postponed, and we united in armed revolution against the most powerful military presence on earth, many dismissed it as unwinnable, heck, as utterly impossible.
But we defeated General Burgoyne at Saratoga, and celebrated Thanksgiving in 1777. And we defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown, and celebrated Thanksgiving in 1781. And we signed a peace treaty at Paris in 1783 that, in retrospect, was simply too much to hope for, and celebrated our first Thanksgiving as one united nation at peace in 1783.
The history of America’s Thanksgivings is a history of challenges overcome, of battles won and people freed. We started out imperfect, and while imperfections remain (there is no perfection on this earth, nor can there be), there have been continual and wonderful improvements over the years. This nation extended political freedom to all races of Americans after the Civil War. The courage and sacrifice of our armed forces have freed countless sufferers abroad and kept our borders safe at home. We tamed or conquered so many diseases of antiquity, by establishing a healthcare system second to none. And we left the serfdom of European feudalism behind, proudly replacing it with the economic miracle of a capitalist nation and a vibrant middle class.
When we celebrate Thanksgiving in America today, we have a great deal for which to be grateful – for our freedoms, for our system, for our lives and health. Like our Founding Fathers over two centuries ago, we thank Divine Providence for giving us this golden land in which to live, and for the limitless potential afforded by limited government.
Perhaps most importantly, He put the greatest generation of statesmen together in one place and time. Today we are thankful for our Founding Fathers, and specifically for the Framers among them who wrote our Constitution during that marvelous summer in Philadelphia.
As we watch the news or read the papers today, we see whole continents afire in revolution, tyranny, privation, and other countless miseries. We are blessed to be here in these United States of America, and for that and the blessings that come with it, we thank our heavenly Father this day, and hopefully, every day.
Copyright 2011 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. A lifelong Midwesterner and recovering politician, his columns appear regularly in Illinois Review.
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