The rituals we observe, the company we keep, the memories we honor—these are the things that bind a people together and give them a sense of themselves. Our public holidays make the present a link between the past and the future. They are public displays of what a people values.
In America, we value gratitude. From our earliest days, Americans have taken time to give thanks and to do so publicly and together. We’ve done this since before there really was such a thing as an American. The earliest people to celebrate a day of thanks in the new world were barely even colonists, just settlers clinging desperately to an unforgiving shore, trying to scratch out a better life.
Some, such as the Puritan settlers of the Plymouth colony came fleeing persecution and eager to build a better, freer, more just society. Others, such as the early 17th century settlers of Virginia and Florida came for profit. But they all set aside public holidays when they ceased from their toil and gave thanks with one voice. Though Thanksgiving has strong religious roots it is not sectarian, it is American. And as such, the sharing of meals and declarations of gratitude promote civil harmony and national unity. It not only makes us who we are, it formed the national character that made America possible.
It is worth noting that the first day of thanksgiving by settlers on these shores dates to 1607, nearly 170 years prior to the nation’s birth on July 4, 1776. That is no coincidence. Giving thanks developed our culture of gratitude and responsibility, and it made the American Revolution not only possible but worthwhile.
The independence won was good and self-determination even better, but the Founders had more than that in view: their goal was a just regime. And a just regime requires as a precondition a moral people with a sense not only of rights but of responsibilities. Thankfulness creates a sense of duty and responsibility that is necessary to sustain a self-governing people. Any notion of rights that ignores or deemphasizes duty will degenerate into the grasping, self-regarding entitlement that is the enemy of free government—and thus of the very rights government is instituted to protect.
It is one thing to assert the importance—the self-evident truth—of mankind’s natural rights. It is quite another to assert the duty of the state to protect those rights. The Founders did both.
George Washington expressed this sentiment beautifully when he wrote to the Jewish Congregation at Newport in 1789 saying, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Americans are not defined by the particulars of their religious faith, but by their efforts at being good citizens. Gratitude and the concomitant sense both of duty and humility are essential. When we come together as a nation to give thanks we confess our dependence on God the creator and sustainer, and on each other as fellow citizens who together maintain our republic.
A national day of thanks is also a welcome balm to the alienating individualism that is endemic in our culture. This is because giving thanks necessarily points to something outside of, and above, ourselves. Thanks must, after all, have an object lest it become mere self-satisfaction. By separating one day each year on which we, with one accord, give thanks we proclaim what binds us together.
Simon and Garfunkel famously boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, hitchhiked to Saginaw, and counted the cars on the New Jersey turnpike looking for America. It turns out you don’t have to go that far—it’s here, it’s all around us, and it starts with thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is a time when we remember and live out the mystic chords of memory that Lincoln evoked when he said to the country: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
We’ve been doing this for over four centuries. As we pause again this year to give thanks let’s renew our own devotion to the great cause of America.