In October of 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation “recommending” to the people of the United States a day of “Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer.” He urged Americans to remember “with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” He published this proclamation, less than a month after the Constitution was signed, at the request of Congress.
Seventy-four years later, in the midst of a bloody and bitter civil war, a different president issued another Thanksgiving Day proclamation. In his proclamation, Lincoln called for “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” He urged Americans to acknowledge “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
School children of my generation were assigned to read and study such Thanksgiving proclamations from our presidents. But today, it seems school children are seldom required to become familiar with such historic proclamations. Why is this? Are our schools, and popular culture in our nation, conspiring to obscure the meaning of Thanksgiving?
Other questions follow. Is popular culture erasing knowledge only of Thanksgiving Day presidential proclamations—or, perhaps, of even more valuable information? Is the erasure intentional, executed by treacherous mavens of political correctness? Or are the culprits simply apathetic heirs to liberty, carelessly squandering an inheritance of inestimable value? And if apathy is the main culprit: When does it arise?
I remember wonderful, childishly acted grade-school plays where Squanto shows the famished Pilgrims how to plant corn. Do modern school children get to act out that play—and, costumed in construction-paper feathers and cardboard hats, gratefully pray over a mock First Thanksgiving Feast?
As I scan the stage of my mind, the questions keep coming. Are school children a grade or two older, in other classrooms, still haltingly delivering dialogue lines as Miles Standish? Do towheaded young actresses play Pilgrim Pricilla Mullins at the front of the classroom? Do they tell a blushing schoolmate impersonating Pilgrim John Alden “to speak for himself?” As the curtain drops, the final questions stand out starkly: Are today’s American students learning what those Pilgrims and other religious refugees bequeathed to us—the Judeo-Christian values of our Thanksgiving holiday—and have they understood that those values are at the core of our nation’s founding?
Our nation’s primary founding document, the Declaration of Independence, announces these Judeo-Christian values in its opening paragraphs. That historic document proclaims that we all stand as equals before the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” This is the essential Judeo-Christian value upon which we base our laws, our social contract—our way of life. Furthermore, the second paragraph puts forward that our Creator (not government) endowed us with our rights—another of our foundational Judeo-Christian values.
An educated appreciation of these values is essential to true celebration of our nation’s Thanksgiving holiday. Those values must become part of our children’s American identity.
The rights bequeathed to every American are divine gifts—but those gifts must be protected from both treachery and apathy.
In Washington’s first Thanksgiving Day proclamation, he humbly asked God “to render our National Government a blessing to all the people.” That blessing was to be obtained as our government continued to be “a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”
Lincoln reminded us that we are a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. If that government is to be wise and just, as Washington enjoined, we, the people, must strive for wisdom and justice. The beginning of wisdom, apathy’s great counter, is to remember, and be grateful to, our Creator, the source of all our rights and blessings.
Happy Thanksgiving to all, and may God Bless the Great State of Tennessee and the United States of America
John D. Ragan, of Oak Ridge, is State Representative in District 33.