By Nancy Spannaus
Nov. 23, 2022—In my Thanksgiving post in COVID-ridden 2020, I asserted that this holiday is not about family, but primarily about our survival as a nation. I wrote:
From the time of the Pilgrims, to George Washington, to Abraham Lincoln, it was about humbly expressing our gratitude for surviving as a nation (or a community), and committing ourselves to use our abundant gifts to create a better future for our fellow man. In the words of my late friend and historian Graham Lowry, we were “giving thanks for a nation.”
Today we would do well to do the same – and prepare ourselves for the hard work of creating a polity that lives up to the ideals which these forefathers, and others, fought to put into effect in our unique nation.
I will not repeat the rest of that post here; I encourage you to read it yourselves. Rather, my intention is to amplify its message in two ways: first, by recalling another significant day of national Thanksgiving; and second, by dwelling on President Washington’s first declaration, issued October 3, 1789.
While the American colonists effectively declared themselves a nation with the Declaration of Independence, it took more than seven years to win recognition of that act by Great Britain. One of the crucial events which dramatized that victory was Evacuation Day, Nov. 25, 1783. That was the day that British occupying troops finally left New York City, and the American flag flew proudly in that city.
This blog featured a vivid description of that momentous day back in 2019, in an article written by the late Pamela Lowry. I recommend it to your attention.
The participants in the celebration that day, and in the several days that followed, were understandably elated, but their behavior also indicates that many had an intimation of the world-historical significance of the event. We are privileged to have a detailed account of the grand dinner held in Fraunces Tavern on the night of the evacuation. It was written by Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s Director of Military Intelligence; his hand-written manuscript still exists at the Tavern.
Among the striking details of the event, which was attended by more than 100 guests, is the listing of the 13 toasts which were raised. They were as follows [in the order given, I assume]:
- The United States of America
- His Most Christian Majesty [King Louis XVI]
- The United Netherlands
- The King of Sweden
- The American Army
- The Fleet and Armies of France, which have served in America
- The memory of those Heroes who has fallen for our freedom
- May our country be grateful to her Military children
- May justice support what courage has gained.
- The Vindicators of the rights of mankind in every quarter of the globe.
- May America be an asylum to the persecuted of the earth
- May a close union of the States guard the Temple they have erected to liberty
- May the remembrance of this Day be a lesson to Princes.
Clearly, these were men thinking not only of our debt to our allies, but to the role we had to play at home and abroad in the days and years to come.
Washington’s First Thanksgiving Proclamation
When President Washington issued his first Thanksgiving Proclamation under our new Constitution, he was acting at the request of Congress. The Continental Congress had begun issuing annual proclamations for a Day of Thanksgiving in November or December in 1777, and had continued that practice until 1784. Then, as its last act before adjournment in the fall of 1789, Congress called upon the President to make such a Proclamation again.
The full text of Washington’s message, issued October 3, follows:
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 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; 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 shown 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.
Some further context for this Proclamation is of interest.
First, the Congressional initiative came in the immediate wake of Congress’ approval of the first 10 Constitutional Amendments, known today as the Bill of Rights. Despite the rancor that had frequently accompanied the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, Congress’s agreement on these amendments, “peaceably” (House Speaker Elias Boudinot’s word), was considered a major accomplishment, if not an act of Providence.
Second, the request to the President itself was a cause for controversy, as the Jeffersonians considered it inappropriate for the Federal government to take such an initiative. Indeed, Washington did send out his Thanksgiving Proclamation to the state governments, seeking their support. But he clearly wanted to establish a strong Federal voice in the matter, as consistent with the drive for a “more perfect Union” which the Constitution represented.
Third, the President’s Proclamation was visibly popular, and led to enthusiastic public support throughout the country. In addition to prayer services, people were encouraged to give donations to the poor: it was a “day of service.” Washington himself provided provisions to those in debtors’ prison in New York City, then the seat of the Federal government.
A Lasting Example?
As the text of his Thanksgiving Proclamation attests, President Washington’s intention was to call the nation’s attention to the blessings of their newly established Constitutional government, and seek their resolve to uphold their own responsibilities under it. He pursued this mission with his characteristic humility, and sought to instill the same in his fellow citizens. We have much to be thankful for, he said, but we must recognize our faults, and dedicate ourselves to fulfilling the noble purposes our Constitution and Declaration have espoused.
A reading of President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 reflects the same spirit. (See Giving Thanks for a Nation, cited above.)
As we give thanks for our blessings as a nation this Thanksgiving Day, may we strive to achieve that same outlook and dedication.
Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, available here.
 See https://www.historynet.com/washingtons-first-thanksgiving/