Thursday, November 25, 2010

George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation: Divine Providence and American Exceptionalism

by Michael Kaplan

On October 7, 1789, President George Washington issued this proclamation establishing November 26 as a holiday to acknowledge God’s providential role in the creation of the United States, the establishment of the Constitution, and the preservation of liberty.

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. 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, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquillity, 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.
This is how it appeared in The Massachusetts Centinel, on October 14, 1789:

And here is an image of the original document in Washington’s own hand from The Library of Congress:

And here is a modern reading on YouTube:

The federal government had been operating a mere seven months when Washington issued this proclamation. There were no guarantees that the American experiment in liberty and self-government would succeed. Indeed the new government would soon be embroiled in rancorous political and ideological conflict over Alexander Hamilton’s program for economic modernization and the consolidation of federal power, which would lead to the creation of the first political parties. This would be followed by the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, twenty-two years of war-to-the-death between Britain and France, which the new United States would barely survive intact. Andrew Jackson’s decisive victory over the British at New Orleans in January 1815, which guaranteed America’s survival and prospects for future greatness, has obscured just how perilous the preceeding years had been. Remember, only four months before Old Hickory’s triumph, the British had captured Washington, DC and burned the White House and the Capitol. America’s long-term prospects had always been boundless; but only if she could weather the storms of domestic and international turmoil in the short term.

Washington understood all too well what was at stake in 1789. America needed all the help she could get for the challenges that lay ahead. Indeed, Washington saw the hand of God at work in the course of the American Revolution. He had said it was “little short of a standing miracle” that the United States had won the War of Independence against the mighty British empire. As the commander in chief told his best general, Nathanael Greene, at the close of the war:

If Historiographers should be hardy enough to fill the page of History with the advantages that have been gained with unequal numbers (on the part of America) in the course of this contest, and attempt to relate the distressing circumstances under which they have been obtained, it is more than probable that Posterity will bestow on their labors the epithet and marks of fiction; for it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this Country could be baffled in their plan of Subjugating it by numbers infinitely less, composed of Men oftentimes half starved; always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.
Washington said much the same in his farewell orders to his soldiers and officers:

A contemplation of the compleat attainment (at a period earlier than could have been expected) of the object for which we contended against so formidable a power cannot but inspire us with astonishment and gratitude. The disadvantageous circumstances on our part, under which the war was undertaken, can never be forgotten. The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverence of the Armies of the U States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle.
The war could not have been won, Washington emphasized, without the heroic exertions and sacrifices made by those Americans, aided by Divine Providence, who put their lives on the line in what often seemed a hopeless cause.

It is not the meaning nor within the compass of this address to detail the hardships peculiarly incident to our service, or to describe the distresses, which in several instances have resulted from the extremes of hunger and nakedness, combined with the rigours of an inclement season; nor is it necessary to dwell on the dark side of our past affairs. Every American Officer and Soldier must now console himself for any unpleasant circumstances which may have occurred by a recollection of the uncommon scenes in which he has been called to Act no inglorious part, and the astonishing events of which he has been a witness, events which have seldom if ever before taken place on the stage of human action, nor can they probably ever happen again. For who has before seen a disciplined Army formd at once from such raw materials? Who, that was not a witness, could imagine that the most violent local prejudices would cease so soon, and that Men who came from the different parts of the Continent, strongly disposed, by the habits of education, to despise and quarrel with each other, would instantly become but one patriotic band of Brothers, or who, that was not on the spot, can trace the steps by which such a wonderful revolution has been effected, and such a glorious period put to all our warlike toils?
By putting aside their local and sectional jealousies, enduring untold hardships and privations, and forging a national identity in the crucible of the war, the men of the Continental Army had secured the independence of their (sometimes ungrateful) fellow Americans. Victory gave Americans the opportunity to pursue happiness. “It is universally acknowledged,” Washington told the men, “that the enlarged prospects of happiness, opened by the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, almost exceeds the power of description. . . . In such a Country, so happily circumstanced, the pursuits of Commerce and the cultivation of the soil will unfold to industry the certain road to competence.” Or, as historian John Ferling writes in the conclusion to his magisterial history of the Revolutionary War: “The American people and their soldiers, not just General Washington, had endured to gain a victory that, they prayed, would usher in a world filled with greater promise than would have been their lot under aristocratic, monarchical Great Britain.” (Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence [New York: Oxford University Press, 2007], p. 575.) Six years later, President Washington and the American people were embarking on a new stage in the journey to make that hope a reality.

American exceptionalism, Washington firmly believed, rested on Divine Providence. In this Thanksgiving Proclamation, the president was asking the American people to acknowledge the miracle of their new nation and the God-given gift of liberty. These are thoughts we should all keep in mind as we celebrate and count our blessings this Thanksgiving Day.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan