President Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation

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Yesterday was the 225th anniversary of the America's first national day of Thanksgiving, as proclaimed by President Washington at the behest of Congress. The heart of this particular observance was thankfulness to God for "an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness." Washington called on Americans to beseech God "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." Even then, in the very first year under the new Constitution, the possibility of laws exceeding the limits set by the Constitution was on the minds of America's leaders. At the same time, our founders understood that the institutional separation of church and state does not require the alienation of faith and government.

This text is from the Heritage Foundation, which has a good introduction to the proclamation.

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 and 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 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 has 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 to us), and to bless them with good governments, 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.

G. Washington

The president sent the proclamation to the governors of the several states: "I do myself the honor to enclose to your Excellency a Proclamation for a general Thanksgiving which I must request the favor of you to have published and made known in your State in the way and manner that shall be most agreeable to yourself."

The congressional resolution requesting President Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation was not without controversy. Congressman Thomas Tudor Tucker thought that it was too soon to give thanks for the new Constitution: "They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness. We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced; but whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us. If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States." Note the assumption that a state government might take up a religious matter.

The UVa article on the proclamation goes on to say:

Whatever reservations may have been held by some public officials, the day was widely celebrated throughout the nation. The Virginia assembly, for example, resolved on 19 November that the chaplain "to this House, be accordingly requested to perform divine service, and to preach a sermon in the Capitol, before the General Assembly, suitable to the importance and solemnity of the occasion, on the said 26th day of November." Most newspapers printed the proclamation and announced plans for public functions in honor of the day. Many churches celebrated the occasions by soliciting donations for the poor.

Washington himself gave $25 to the pastor of two Presbyterian churches "to be applied towards relieving the poor of the Presbyterian Churches."

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 27, 2014 9:03 PM.

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