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!
"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."
President Lincoln then urged Americans in every state, and those in foreign lands, and even those on the high seas "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
And so this week we eat turkey and stuffing and watch football with our families.
But President Lincoln urged more from us: Take care for the orphans, the widows, the mourners and all the victims of war, "with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience." And he asked us all to "fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union."
The ultimate in gratitude is gratitude for the mystery of existence itself, for this whole world we did not make, and for the miracle that is our own existence, unasked for, unnecessary, glorious and easy to overlook in our travails and disappointment and ennui and anger and ceaseless strivings.
So this turkey day, notice your blessings, do penance for your sins in good works to others, and be grateful to God for all the good that you enjoy. Happy Thanksgiving.
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.