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Voice of Experience: November 2023 | Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving for Our Country in 2023 in Light of Some Historical Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations

Francis Henry Morrison

Thanksgiving for Our Country in 2023 in Light of Some Historical Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations Zigic

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When one thinks about Americans sitting down on November 23 with loved ones and turkey to give thanks for our country and its blessings, what effect will the headwinds of our times have?

Think about our country’s situation: (1) according to October, 2023 poll results, just 3 out of 10 U.S voters think that our country is headed in the right direction, and a September, 2023 poll in which barely 50% of all U.S. adults on average trust in U.S. institutions -- better than I expected!; (2) large majorities of Americans are concerned about the economy, rising prices of food, along with increases in the costs of energy and gas; (3) attacks on the rule of law, law enforcement (e.g., the F.B.I.), members of our military (e.g., delayed promotions), and our Constitution and democracy itself; (4) the attacks on the 2020 election results and aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, including a spate of decided and pending court cases; (5) our decades-long bipartisan failure to produce a practical or compassionate immigration plan; (6) political turmoil including virulent extremism on the left and right; (7) remarkable and apparently growing division in our country; and (8) the funding of the war in Ukraine.

As unsettling as this nasty brew may be, many of us will still sit down on Thanksgiving Day, (a holiday that is a close second only to Christmas in popularity) to thank God for the blessings we and America have and continue to receive. Our country’s democracy has survived wars, catastrophic attacks, armed insurrection, a civil war, racially- motivated church bombings, assassinations, and more.

From the very beginning in 1789 to 2022, American Presidents have issued Thanksgiving Proclamations thanking God in one way or another for America’s survival in the face of all of the horrors above and more. The proclamations discussed below suggest that celebrating thanksgiving for our country is far from dead. In fact, they have much to teach us about ourselves and the history of Thanksgiving.

Washington’s 1789 Proclamation

On October 7, 1789, President Washington issued “A Proclamation” designating Thursday, November 26th as a day of public Thanksgiving acknowledging the favor of Almighty God “by affording [Americans] an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” (“A Proclamation.” Gazette of the United-States (New York, NY), October 7, 1989.)

He was, of course, referring to our Constitution and new government which began operating in 1789.

Washington’s 1795 Proclamation

From 1791-1794, whiskey taxes imposed by the federal government led to an armed insurrection in Western Pennsylvania. Following death and injury, property damage, and an assault on the new Republic’s power to tax, President Washington raised a federal army and the insurrection collapsed as federal troops marched into Western Pennsylvania. As many as 2000 rebels allegedly involved in the insurrection fled into the western mountains. Some 24 of the rebels were indicted for high treason—10 were tried, two were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging and were later pardoned by Washington.

On January 1, 1795, Washington’s Proclamation noted in pertinent part that: (1) compared to other nations, “the present condition of the United States affords much matter of consolation and satisfaction.”; (2) “the great degree of internal tranquility we have enjoyed, [and] the recent confirmation of that tranquility by the suppression of [the Whiskey Rebellion] which so wantonly threatened it.”; and (3) Americans observe Thursday the 19th of February next as a day of public worship and on that day render thanks to “The Great Ruler of Nations” among other things “to render this country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries,” i.e., a system of immigration.

By his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Washington was urging citizens to give thanks for the internal tranquility which resulted by reason of the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion—an event with some striking similarities to the January 6th Capitol Insurrection.

Lincoln’s Proclamation of October 3, 1863

The Civil War Battle of Gettysburg ended on July 3, 1863, with the horrendous toll of over 50,000 American casualties over three days. In proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday on November (Lincoln issued nine such proclamations during the Civil War), Lincoln returned to two of his favorite themes: empathy for those hurt by a civil war of “unequalled magnitude and severity” and peace and unity inviting his fellow citizens to (1) “commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged”; and (2) “and fervently implore the interposition of [God] to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as consistent with [God’s] purposes of the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

This proclamation is viewed as the beginning of the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.

Roosevelt Proclamation 2522 of November 8, 1941

FDR established November 20, 1941, as a day to be observed in giving thanks to God. The proclamation was issued just as the country was coming out of the Great Depression, and just before the Day of Infamy attack on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor causing over 2,341 deaths. Some of the points FDR made in the Proclamation include: (1) “Our beloved country is free and strong”; (2) in a preview of recurring conflicts and violence in the world to come, he said, “In the interest of our own future, we are sending succor at increasing pace to those peoples abroad who are defending their homes and their precious liberties against annihilation” and (3) “Let us ask Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life against the forces of evil and slavery which seek in these days to encompass us.”

FDR’s words are a powerful reply to the Thanksgiving headwinds of 2023.

Kennedy Proclamation 3560 signed on November 4, 1963, and released on November 5, 1963

Proclamation 3560 was issued eighteen days before JFK’s death by violent assassination on Friday, November 22, 1963.

JFK quotes these words from President Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation where he calls on the citizens of the new nation to “beseech [God] to pardon our national and other transgressions….” (id). Elliot Ackerman, writing in the “New York Times” on November 11, 2017, analyzes JFK’s Proclamation as follows: (1) he wrote his message to a divided nation in 1963—as we are today; and (2) JFK was writing after the Bay of Pigs invasion, after U.S. advisers had arrived in Vietnam and two months after the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham resulting in the murder of four African-American girls. Ackerman’s view is that these were the “transgressions” about which JFK was writing. We will never know after JFK’s murder in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

JFK’s Thanksgiving concluding prayer in Proclamation 3560 was that: “…[God] will continue to guide and sustain us in the great and unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.”

George W. Bush Proclamation of November 16, 2001

On September 11, 2001, the death toll at the three sites and 9/11-related illnesses now exceeds 3,000 persons. President Bush’s Thanksgiving Proclamation makes several highly pertinent points for our Thanksgiving, 2023 headwinds:  (1) “Despite these extraordinary times, we find particular assurance from our Thanksgiving tradition, which reminds us that we, as a people and individually, always have reason to hope and trust in God, despite great adversity.”; (2) “As we recover from the terrible tragedies of September 11, Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful and fair-minded land”; and (3) he called out the heroism of first responders: “Let us particularly give thanks for the self-less sacrifices of those who responded in service to others after the terrorist attacks, setting aside their own safety as they reached out to help their neighbors.”

President Bush provided many positive responses to the dastardly 9/11 attack on our country. His Thanksgiving Proclamation steadied us all and boosted national unity at a very difficult time.

Donald J. Trump Proclamation of November 25, 2020

On November 25, 2020, President Trump issued his Proclamation on Thanksgiving Day. Repeating some of the themes from prior Proclamations he said: (1) “give thanks for the principles of freedom, liberty, and democracy that make our country exceptional in the history of the world”; (2) The Mayflower passengers’ celebration of the harvest with Native Americans is the “seminal event in the history of our Nation [and] is a continual reminder of the power of faith, love, perseverance, prayer and fellowship”; (3) during the season of gratitude, “we include the brave American patriots of our armed forces who selflessly defend our sacred liberty at home and abroad”; and (4) “and we pause to remember the sacrifices or our law enforcement personnel and first responders.”

President Trump’s 2020 Proclamation supports several cardinal principles underlying the history of Thanksgiving Proclamations that are still important today.

Joseph R. Biden Proclamation of November 23, 2022

President Joe Biden issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation on November 23, 2022. After expressing gratitude for those who kept us safe during the pandemic, other frontline workers and service members and first responders, he concluded with this:

I encourage the people of the United States of America to join together and give thanks for the friends, neighbors, family neighbors and strangers who have supported each other over the past year in a reflection of goodwill and unity.

Thanksgiving 2023, November 23, 2023

Please consider joining our fellow Americans on Thanksgiving Day and every day in affirming one or more of the principles of Presidential Proclamations set out above. The head winds won’t have a chance!