As we call to mind all our blessings this Thanksgiving Day, let us ponder the original Thanksgiving proclamation of George Washington and the light it casts on constitutional government. Sometimes Abraham Lincoln's October 3, 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation (or a highly doctored version thereof) is distributed, but as worthy as that is, the original makes clear how Americans today should think about a number of controversial issues—most urgently whether we are "one nation under God."
As the original proclamation makes clear, President Washington declares that the last Thursday in November be a national day of thanks to "the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." He invokes first "the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty Godâ€¦" and then the authority of both Houses of Congress to declare such a holiday. Principal among the reasons for thanking God is the "opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness." That is, this political aim—an echo of the Declaration of Independence's goal of just government—demands acknowledgement of and thanks for God's actions.
Washington divides the reasons for national expressions to God into two lists of 10 items. The second paragraph lists 10 reasons for thanking God for recent historical events, including "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." We must also thank God "forâ€¦civil and religious liberty" and "the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge."
The third paragraph gives 10 reasons for praying to "the great Lord and Ruler of Nations" for national guidance and blessings. Washington asks God's blessings on "all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us)." Washington was not reluctant to invoke God for present-day purposes. He prays that God will "promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Usâ€¦." God has blessed America with religious liberty, but there is indeed a "true religion," one incidentally that is consistent with "science."
In this brief proclamation, echoed by almost every president since, Washington indicates the indivisibility of religion and politics. His words, which may be read in full at the Claremont Institute's companion site, Founding.com, deserve much more attention than a few downs of a football game. Reading them will make clear to us today how misguided those are who see in the Constitution a call for severing religion from our public life.