Thanksgiving is traditionally a time where the people of the United States turn their eyes toward heaven and give thanks for the many blessings which have been bestowed on us by Almighty God. Although we tend to associate the modern holiday with the proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863, the first presidential proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving actually dates back to 1789 and was promulgated by our first president, George Washington. Since that time our presidents have traditionally, but not always, issued a proclamation urging American citizens to give thanks to God for the blessings that have been bestowed on us and our nation.
It is interesting and illuminating to see how various presidents have framed their thoughts about this special occasion. You can review all of the presidential proclamations here. In my view, however, no presidential proclamation has matched that issued by George Washington on October 13, 1789. We would do well to reflect on the sentiments expressed by our first president about the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits and to implore him for his protection and favor, beseeching him to pardon us of our transgressions. Mr. Washington's proclamation is set forth in its entirety below.
THANKSGIVING DAY 1789
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA -- A PROCLAMATION
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 tranquillity, 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 shewn 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 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.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Today, no less so than in his time, our nation would do well to heed Mr. Washington's words. May you and yours have a blessed Thanksgiving.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty. He is also chairman of the Center for a Just Society.
Publication date: November 20, 2012