Thanksgiving: The Odd Bird Holiday

President Trump’s traditional pardoning of Thanksgiving turkeys displayed both his wit and partisanship in service of a higher understanding of American politics.

Even the Washington Post writer, its drama critic, had to offer grudging praise for Trump’s performance, even excusing his “earnest platitudes.”

The mixture of comedy and earnestness arises from the very origins of Thanksgiving, in its blend of politics and religion. If not the most popular holiday, Thanksgiving is certainly America’s oddest. It is in a literal sense a religious holiday—we do not confine our thanks to quarterbacks, cooks, or cousins. Even the most cursory reflection on the holiday puts thanks to God at its core.

Even the closing words of the president’s proclamation, as do all presidential proclamations, repeat the last words of the original Constitution: “I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand eighteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-third.” Time is measured in Christian time and in American, Declaration of Independence time.

But such thanks goes beyond all measure of what we could possibly return. We could never properly thank our parents. How do we thank our country? How dare we identify God and country!

But at the least we Americans can show gratitude, as generations of Americans have done. Immigrants often excelled in this trait, to the extent that we are astounded when they turn out to be ingrates. But it is impossible to demand love.

The courts, the political establishment, and above all our education system make this impossible task of gratitude also look insane, ridiculous, even immoral. The courts have distorted the “separation of church and state;” our political establishment has “pragmatically” elevated “globalism” over patriotism; and our impoverished educations have taught us that the only way in which America is exception is in being exceptionally evil.

Yet, some impossibly ambitious tasks constitute the most serious duties we have. By taking ourselves seriously, we make fools of ourselves. Shakespeare’s King Lear allows us to see that. But we would be even greater fools, and we know this, if we did not hold ourselves to be serious men and women on whom the fate of the world depends.

Fortunately, we are not at a loss, for the original Thanksgiving Day proclamations offer steady guides for shaping our gratitude. George Washington offers what may appear to be a coldly rational view of Thanksgiving, but it is in fact a highly instructive brief discourse on what we must do to be patriotic.

Following the intent of Congress, Washington proposed that Americans devote the last Thursday of November, 1789 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.”

It is how the “service” to be rendered that should intrigue us. That follows in light of the blessings we have received:

That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies,

Which are to be examined in light of various political benefits:

and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the greatest degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed;– for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted;– for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;– and, in general, for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

God has led us through a successful revolution, peace and prosperity, freedom, and the fruits of “useful knowledge”—in a word a political system of one nation and several states that gives us “safety and happiness”—the low and the high, the necessary and sufficient conditions of political life. Our constitutions have arisen in a “peaceable and rational manner.” The revolution was violent, but thankfully we are governed not by General Washington but through the rule of law, our deliberations led by the Federalist Papers, as well as the anti-Federalist authors. In thanking our republican selves, we do not worship idols; we honor the image of God in our fellow men. In this sense political science is “useful knowledge,” a practical philosophy which submits to God and reason, his laws of nature.

The last paragraph of the Proclamation turns from America and its need for patriotic citizens and thanks the “great Lord and Ruler of Nations,” looking at Americans as denizens of the world, “to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us [N.B.!]) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

There are blessings beyond those that stem from life under a particular form of government—such as “true religion and virtue” and “science.” We can pray for the good intentions of the world, but we can act as Americans only in practicing self-government, within ourselves and among our fellow citizens. Thanking God is the first step in that political task.

Only Abraham Lincoln would compare with Washington in his October 3, 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, offered in the midst of the Civil War. Like Washington he would note the blessings of freedom, science, prosperity, and God, amidst the sorrow of a savage and destructive war. “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.”

Lincoln’s prayer portends the glorious language and the somber teaching of his Second Inaugural.

The Thanksgiving holiday allows us to ponder the human condition and our relation to country and God. May our blessings be a boon for such a reckoning! May our gratitude be unending!

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Photo Credit:  Shelley Swanland

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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