I've been thinking a lot lately about thankfulness. Many people do not know this about me, but I used to be a libertarian.
Like many teenagers, I was converted to a form of libertarianism by Ayn Rand. I was saved from that fate, not by God (that happened, but much later) but by a curious thing: gratitude.
I remember the exact moment I left libertarianism behind me: I was standing on the floor of the Davenport common room at Yale College engaging in a Party of the Right debate -- about a topic I've forgotten. And I suddenly realized what I really wanted to proclaim: Freedom may well be a right, but the most important thing about freedom is that it is a good.
What's the difference? Rights are what you are owed. Goods have to be made. Freedom is a gift. We didn't make it by ourselves for ourselves. We have to be grateful for it.
We owe the simple debt of thankfulness to those who came before -- who suffered, celebrated, fought and died to create the society we now enjoy. That's history. And we owe it to those who created our freedom to pass on the gift.
That is patriotism: the debt that we the living owe to the honored dead, which we can pay only by caring for future generations yet unborn.
In 1863, a magazine editor wrote to President Lincoln urging that he make Thanksgiving a "National and fixed Union Festival." Thanksgiving, originally a New England custom, "now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution."
And so President Lincoln proclaimed, "The year that is drawing toward its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God."
In the midst of the ravages of the Civil War, a war "of unequaled magnitude and severity," President Lincoln paused to notice that "peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict."
How much worse it could have been!
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.