“May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933
“Searching our hearts, we should ask what we can do as individuals to demonstrate our gratitude to God for all He has done. Such reflection can only add to the significance of this precious day of remembrance.”
— Ronald Reagan, 1981
Tradition holds that the president of the United States issues a proclamation each Thanksgiving Day, citing current celebrations, hardships or even wars. It is a nearly inviolate tradition, and its origins go all the way to back to George Washington’s first year in office.
In November of 1789, both houses of Congress had passed a resolution asking the president “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Some of the messages from the chief executive have come in peace time and have celebrated the gift of that peace. Washington’s 1795 message was one of those. It began, “When we review the calamities which afflict so many other nations, the present condition of the United States affords much matter of consolation and satisfaction. Our exemption hitherto from foreign war, the great degree of internal tranquility we have enjoyed, the unexampled prosperity of all classes of our citizens, are circumstances which peculiarly mark our situation with indications of the Divine beneficence toward us.”
Washington’s successor, John Adams, did not make Thanksgiving proclamations, but rather titled them as being for “A Day of Fasting and Humiliation.” Adams’ message stated, “I recommend that on the said day the duties of humiliation and prayer be accompanied by fervent thanksgiving to the Bestower of Every Good Gift, not only for His having hitherto protected and preserved the people of these United States in the independent enjoyment of their religious and civil freedom, but also for having prospered them in a wonderful progress of population, and for conferring on them many and great favors conducive to the happiness and prosperity of a nation.” Adams tried to move the date into April or May.
During the War of 1812, Congress and President Madison made a similar call, with the father of the Constitution stating, “The two Houses of the National Legislature having by a joint resolution expressed their desire that in the present time of public calamity and war a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States as a day of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace.” Madison tried a date in January in 1814 and in April in 1815.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for multiple Thanksgiving Days to celebrate major victories. These dates fell throughout the calendar, in relation to the dates of battle. In early October of 1863, Lincoln cited the war in his message, “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.”
Delaware’s own Rutherford Hayes got in the act in 1880, delivering a joyous message to the nation and returning to the last Thursday in November as the date. His proclamation stated, “Health, wealth, and prosperity throughout all our borders; peace, honor, and friendship with all the world; firm and faithful adherence by the great body of our population to the principles of liberty and justice which have made our greatness as a nation, and to the wise institutions and strong frame of government and society, which will perpetuate it – for all these let the thanks of a happy and united people, as with one voice, ascend in devout homage to the Giver of All Good.”
It was another calamity that led to Congress to finally declare that Thanksgiving was a federal holiday and set a specific date for it. Just 19 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Congress set the date on the fourth Thursday in November, to begin in 1942. Nearly two decades ago, just weeks following another horrific day on American soil, President Bush issued his 2001 Thanksgiving message, saying, “As we recover from the terrible tragedies of September 11, Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful, and fair-minded land. Let us particularly give thanks for the self-less sacrifices of those who responded in service to others after the terrorist attacks, setting aside their own safety as they reached out to help their neighbors.”
Regardless of your circumstances, I hope you found much to be thankful for yesterday and find much more to be thankful for in the year to come.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.