We are all familiar with the Thanksgiving holiday as a time for family, feasting, and football. All of these are great American institutions, but we forget too easily the meaning of this national holiday as it was first established by George Washington on October 3, 1789 and reaffirmed as we know it today by Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863, exactly 74 years later. A mere glance at their Thanksgiving proclamations reminds us of the noblest purposes of government, including its greatest endsfighting war and educating its citizenswhich fulfill all the objects of peace.
Moreover, the simplest meaning of Thanksgiving reminds uscontrary to secularist courts and professorsthat these presidents were proclaiming a holy day, a day for prayer and recognition of Almighty God's authority over man. We are most human when we honor our duties, to our country and to our Creator, and the wisdom that unifies these duties. No understanding of the First Amendment, however crabbed, can possibly gainsay this official government acknowledgement of the power of the sacred in our lives.
A close reading of these two messages reveals a careful and subtle teaching about the higher purposes of government and of human life. Washington urged prayer "to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed...." Prayer should also lead this nation of "civil and religious liberty" to "promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among [other nations] and us...." God and the human mind are in alliance.
Even in the midst of "the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged," Lincoln first paints a picture of a prosperous, free, and indeed flourishing land. These are the "gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People." At the end of the proclamation, Lincoln asks for prayers not only of thanks but also "with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience." Thus do we "commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers" in the war. Have we, as those Americans did, taken to heart the Thanksgiving prayers the Father of our Country urged upon us?
As our young men fight and die in Iraq and around the world, just as thousands died at home only a little more than three years ago, we should remember the war wisdom of Lincoln and the founding wisdom of Washington on Thanksgiving Day. Guided by prayer, we should recall our higher purposes. We enjoy the fruits of our leisure on account of the sacrifices of others today and before us. Thanksgiving Day is Memorial Day and the Fourth of July together, a time for both the Gettysburg Address and the Constitutionas well as for the family, feasting, and football that complete American life.