Special Report

Presidential Proclamations of Thanks

Our understandings of this civic and religious holiday came into their own in the second half of the 19th century.

By 11.21.06

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Last week, President Bush issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, something virtually every President has done virtually every year since 1863. Before then, Thanksgiving proclamations were the exception, rather than the rule, but even the exceptions are instructive and interesting.

President Bush's proclamation contains two explicit references to God and one mention of "our Lord." There are four variations on the words blessed and blessing, and two references to prayer. Still, it is hardly the most explicitly religious of the proclamations Presidents have issued, and surely lies squarely within the mainstream of such efforts. Only the most doctrinaire of secularists could find a reason to object.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday, at once civic and religious. It commemorates and celebrates human accomplishments, like our purely civic holidays, but insists that they are all in some way dependent upon God's will. Thus many of the 19th century proclamations expressed gratitude for "exuberant harvests, productive mines, [and] ample crops of the staples of trade and manufactures," in the words of Rutherford B. Hayes. Others made grateful reference to our "civil and religious liberty" (U.S. Grant) and to "liberty, justice, and constitutional government" (Chester A. Arthur). Still others thanked God for "the blessings of peace" (Benjamin Harrison). While it's hard to overlook the contribution of human effort to all these accomplishments, it's also hard to ignore the way in which at least some of them seem dependent upon God.

The origin of Thanksgiving in the celebration of a successful harvest helps account for this complication. Farmers recognize their dependence upon forces beyond their control. When they can actually reap what they sow, they know that something other than their own efforts has played a part, providing rain and sunshine in the right amounts at the right time.

Looking to God for what might otherwise be regarded as the gifts of fortune, we might come to share in the theologically discriminating judgments expressed in Grover Cleveland's 1887 Thanksgiving proclamation:

The goodness and mercy of God, which have followed the American people during all the days of the past year, claim their grateful recognition and humble acknowledgment. By His omnipotent power He protected us from war and pestilence and from every national calamity; by His gracious favor the earth has yielded a generous return to the labor of the husbandman, and every path of toil has led to comfort and contentment; by His loving kindness the hearts of our people have been replenished with fraternal sentiment and patriotic endeavor; and by His unerring guidance we have been directed in the way of national prosperity.

We should be grateful, Cleveland says, for protection from what we are wont to call "acts of God," for the generous recompense for our efforts, for the love we share with our neighbors and fellow citizens, and for our leadership.

Some of these sentiments might seem to jar the modern ear. How does God show us the path to peace and prosperity? That's what political leaders are for, we might say. In any event, we surely hold -- are surely holding -- Presidents responsible for our domestic economy and our international troubles.

Part of the explanation can be found in George Washington's second Thanksgiving proclamation (1795), much less frequently cited than his first. Calling upon us "to meet together and render...sincere and hearty thanks to the Great Ruler of Nations for the manifold and signal mercies which distinguish our lot as a nation," he urges us as well to:

Humbly and fervently...beseech the kind Author of these blessings graciously to prolong them to us; to imprint in our hearts a deep and solemn sense of our obligations to Him for them; to preserve us from the arrogance of prosperity, and from hazarding the advantages we enjoy by delusive pursuits; to dispose us to merit the continuance of His favors by not abusing them; by our gratitude for them, and by a correspondent conduct as citizens and men; to render this country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries; to extend among us true and useful knowledge; to diffuse and establish habits of sobriety, order, morality, and piety, and, finally, to impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.

Yes, we have intelligence and ingenuity, but unless we recognize them as gifts of God, we are prone to abuse and misuse them, exalting ourselves in our arrogance and deluding ourselves regarding our potency. By reminding us of our limitations, giving thanks to God humbles us. We ought not to be confident that we know it all, that we have all the answers. And we ought not to regard our capacities as ours alone, to be used as we please. We are accountable for them, not just to our fellow citizens, or to the voters, but to God.

Here's how Abraham Lincoln put it in his 1863 proclamation of a "Day of Thanksgiving, Praise, and Prayer" (in August, by the way, not in November):

I invite the people of the United States to assemble...in their customary places of worship and in the forms approved by their own consciences render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation's behalf...and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the divine will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace.

We can't be thankful without at the same time being humble and submissive.

The balance struck by most Presidents in their proclamations, looking outward at the nation while also looking upward to God, reminds us of our limitations and our responsibilities, and of the resources beyond ourselves upon which we can call to overcome the one and fulfill the other. This is a civic religion, but not one that glorifies the country or the state. It conjoins liberty and limited government, on the one hand, with responsibility and limitless love, on the other. It acknowledges and indeed cherishes our religious diversity, seeking to include all rather than to exclude any.

That makes it just about my favorite civic holiday. Let us all give thanks.

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About the Author

Joseph M. Knippenberg teaches at Oglethorpe University.