George Washington was not narrowly sectarian but, like many Americans then and now, was deeply spiritual and profoundly committed to the American experiment in republican government.
As the founder of the modern American Thanksgiving holiday, his vision for that day still speaks to us over two centuries later.
European colonists in Virginia, Massachusetts and elsewhere had observed sectarian days of thanksgiving since they first settled on the shores of what would become the United States. In their own ways and within their own traditions, Native Americans had done so even earlier.
In November 1789, however, at the request of Congress in the first year of the new government under the Constitution, then-President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day for the American republic — a novel experience under a united government.
His words are as relevant now as ever.
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God,” Washington wrote in that first national Thanksgiving Proclamation, the people of the United States should acknowledge their gratitude to God for “affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
America’s national constitutional government was less than a year old at the time — a bold experiment in continental democracy — and Washington saw it as a blessing but a tenuous one. He knew the developing country needed active nurturing to survive and prosper.
In that first Thanksgiving Proclamation, Washington called on the people of the United States to render thanks to God “for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safeness and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted.”
Note well what he thanked God for: the peaceful transition to the new government and the human reason employed in establishing it. Washington saw constitutional government peacefully and rationally instituting the rule of law as a divine blessing, but one that the American people had conceived and created through their own efforts.
Accordingly, in that first Thanksgiving Proclamation, Washington asked all Americans to offer their prayers to “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations … 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.”
Washington suggested that wise and just laws do not fall from the heavens but require human administration and obedience.
To achieve this end, he requested the people’s prayers for God “to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually.” Maintaining the American experiment in republican government needed the active engagement of all citizens, using their wisdom and discretion.
Further, he urged Americans to pray for God “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us.”
Washington saw republican virtue and the increase of scientific knowledge as essential to sustaining republican government and constitutional liberty.
In the original draft for his first inaugural address, he wrote, “This Constitution is really in its formation a government of the people; that is to say, a government in which all power is derived from, and at stated periods reverts to them.”
Only the people can maintain it.
In his farewell address, after eight years as president, Washington added, “The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
Warning against excessive factionalism that puts party first and violent extremism that undermines peaceable governance, Washington concluded, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
That was his prayer on the first national Thanksgiving and that was his expressed cause for thankfulness. Reason had allowed Americans to form a more perfect union peaceably, and republican virtue was needed to sustain it.
That remains true today. Then, as now, ours is a republic if only we can keep it by remaining committed to the principles that set our nation apart in the first place.
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