From our nation’s inception, one of the defining characteristics of the American spirit has been an attitude of gratitude. Leaders throughout our country's history have encouraged and inculcated it.
Just a brief moment of reflection cannot help but yield a level of humility that recognizes even what Americans are “owed” in the end is rooted in many gifts. How did we come by the talents, abilities and opportunities that have allowed us to accomplish our dreams, to provide for our families, to learn, live, grow up in a land that is free? It is all grace. Of course, the natural follow-on question is to whom do we express our gratitude? One overriding answer becomes clear in looking to the words of the most prominent leaders in United States history: God, the Author of“every good and perfect gift.”
From the first English settlers erecting a cross at Cape Henry and giving thanks for safe passage, to the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony, to the Founders of our country, to those who saved it during the Civil War, and onward to the present day, gratitude expressed to God has been pervasive.
At key moments throughout the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued calls to days of prayer and fasting to seek God’s aid or days of thanksgiving for victories won. When the Continental Army defeated the British in stunning fashion at Saratoga in 1777, a proclamation calling for a national day of thanksgiving went out recognizing that God "...smiled upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties...[and] hath been pleased...to crown our arms with most signal success.”
Four years later, when combined American and French forces under the leadership of General George Washington defeated the British at Yorktown, the Continental Congress proceeded en masse from the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) to a nearby church to attend a special service and offer thanks to God. Shortly thereafter, the body issued a proclamation calling on the nascent nation to do the same observing, “Whereas, it hath pleased Almighty God, the father of mercies, remarkably to assist and support the United States of America in their important struggle for liberty against the long continued efforts of a powerful nation: it is the duty of all ranks to observe and thankfully acknowledge the interpositions of his Providence in their behalf.”
Washington, having known the dire straits the Continental Army found itself in on numerous occasions during the eight-year conflict, viewed the Americans’ victory as nothing short of a “standing miracle” and gave God the credit due in his Farewell Orders to the Army and in his Circular Letter to the States. He revisited the topic among the very first thoughts he expressed in his Inaugural Address in 1789 stating, “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides over council of nations…In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments no less than my own....No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
That same year, President Washington issued the first thanksgiving proclamation under the newly formed government. The proclamation stated 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…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.”
Abraham Lincoln, a fervent student of George Washington and the Founding Fathers, followed in their footsteps during Civil War. At decisive moments during the conflict, he too issued proclamations calling for national days of thanksgiving including after the landmark victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, both of which conspicuously occurred during the July 4th weekend in 1863 and changed the entire trajectory of the war.
In the most famous of his thanksgiving proclamations, issued later that same year, Lincoln set the precedent (and followed Washington’s lead) for what became our nation’s annual November thanksgiving observances. He made note that even in the midst of a war of “unequaled magnitude,” Americans had many things for which to be thankful including fruitful fields and industry, the non-intervention of foreign powers in the war, the contracting theaters of conflict, and for a population continuing to grow despite the waste wrought by what would be the nation's bloodiest war. Lincoln perceived, "No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are gracious gifts from the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
He added, "It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States...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 it has seemed fit and proper to every President since Lincoln to issue annual Thanksgiving Day proclamations. Drawing on the inspiration of those who have gone before, may this attitude of faith-filled gratitude continue to be at the heart of the American spirit.