November 27, 2010 Columbia, MO
By: David Rosman
A friend forwarded an editorial from the Daytona Beach News-Journal concerning Thanksgiving, a faithful reprinting President George Washington’s first proclamation for a national day of thanks. To be fair to Washington’s Anglican roots and to the history of the holiday, here is the rest of the story.
Washington was not the only president to proclaim a day of thanks. John Adams and James Madison continued the practice, at least through the War of 1812. From 1815 to 1862, no such proclamation was made, nor was there a national celebration of thanks declared immediately after the Revolutionary War.
Interestingly, the President and Congress seemed to collude to ignore the Constitution, something still practiced today. Though, there are some connections between religion and government, as implicate or explicit as they may be, there is a historical and legal question as to whether such proclamations were law.
Yet Lincoln’s actions came only because Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, had proclaimed a day of thanks one year earlier. Davis’ proclamation declared November 15 as “a day of national humiliation and prayer… to implore blessing of almighty God upon our people, that he may give us victory over our enemies, preserve our homes and altars from pollution, and secure to us the restoration of peace and prosperity.”
Lincoln’s first proclamation, signed on April 10, 1862, asked the citizens to, at their personal place of worship, “acknowledge and render thanks to our Heavenly Fathers for these inestimable blessings, that they then and there implore spiritual consolation in behalf of all who have been brought into affliction by the casualties and calamities of sedition and civil war, and… to the end that they may speedily result in the restoration of peace, harmony, and unity throughout our borders and hasten the establishment of fraternal relations among all the countries of the earth.”
There are three notes here. First, the presidential decree talks to “Heavenly Fathers,” not “Father,” and that “they,” in the lower case, bring blessings. Lincoln understood the large varieties of theistic and non-theistic beliefs in the nation.
Second, Lincoln, unlike Davis view of the Union, never saw the Confederacy as the “enemy.” There was something more “ecumenical” about Lincoln’s words.
It was not until 1863, in the mist of the Civil War, that Lincoln called on the American people to set, “the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens… commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore if, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.” President Lincoln”s second proclamation of thanks is usually cited as the first “law” concerning Thanksgiving.
Third point; Lincoln’s proclamation was not law but a pronouncement. According to The ‘lectric Law Library, “The president’s proclamation has not the force of law, unless when authorized by congress.” Lincoln’s proclamation received no Congressional authorization.
In 1939, when Thanksgiving fell on the last day of the month and fearing a foreshortened Christmas buying season, President Franklyn Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday as “Thanksgiving.” According to the National Achieves, the President’s proclamation was not wholly accepted. “32 states issued similar proclamations while 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November.”
It was not until Congress passed House Joint Resolution 41in 1941 that Thanksgiving was given congressional acceptance and declared Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the “last Thursday in November.” In 1942, “last” was struck and “fourth” inserted by the United States Senate, giving us the secular holiday as we celebrate it today. There is no mention of religion or God in the resolution, with the exception of Christmas as a holiday.
Those who claim a religious connection to Thanksgiving do so through Puritan beliefs and various presidential proclamations. The holiday, by tradition, is a celebration of the harvest and survival in a foreign and hostile land. Puritan belief was adamant that only God could have saved them from death. Only He could guide their ingenuity and the cooperation of the Native Americans. The tradition of presidents thanking God is more of a ritual, not a statement of the religiosity of the United States.
Like all other national holidays, with the exception of Christmas (more about that in another column), Thanksgiving is secular and our “prayers” are those which all should have, that of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And of peace.
David Rosman is an award winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in Communications, Ethics, Business and Politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com and New York Journal of Books.com.
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