Every year, before we eat Thanksgiving dinner, my family reads a proclamation delivered in 1936 by then-Gov. Wilbur Cross of Connecticut. It is a beautiful secular and religious blessing, and is an astounding testament to what public rhetoric in the United States can be. At a moment in our history when the Oval Office is occupied by a maw-like void — so bereft of dignity and civility that wishing for eloquence seems like proof of the worst naivete — I crave voices such as Cross’s more than ever. So I went back and read every Thanksgiving proclamation issued by an U.S. president. If the pronouncements illuminate the gap between our present and our possibilities more painfully than ever, they also serve as a testament to why Thanksgiving is the perfect American holiday.
In the early years of the republic, presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations not on any set date, but to mark events that they thought merited particular public displays of religious gratitude. (They also occasionally called for Days of Public Humiliation, a tradition that sounds surprisingly appealing in these fallen days.) It took the determined lobbying of Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Ladies’ Magazine and later Godey’s Lady’s Book, to convince President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a regular national holiday. And it wasn’t until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt — and a fight over whether setting the date of Thanksgiving was a state or a national prerogative — that Thanksgiving was firmly fixed as a uniform national holiday.
Logistical kerfuffles, the sweep of centuries and the vast differences in presidential styles notwithstanding, the presidential Thanksgiving proclamations have maintained a similar form over time. They recognize America’s privileges, celebrate the year’s successes and mark its losses. And they make an argument about America’s responsibilities.
The United States has gotten bigger in the years since George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation, both literally and in the role our country plays on the world stage. But one of the beautiful things about Thanksgiving is that, for a moment, it lets us be small again. When presidents thank God for America’s blessings, or when they cite the advantages of the oceans that serve as our natural buffers and the richness of our farmlands and natural resources, they are reminding Americans that the good fortune that comes our way is partly beyond our control. To the extent that we live good lives in the United States, there is an extent to which we cannot smugly claim to have done it all ourselves.
But part of the American idea, no matter how tattered and threadbare that dream has become, is the prospect that we can better ourselves. Thanksgiving is a chance to account for our progress in the year that has passed. Presidents mark it in the yield of the fields; the negotiations that have kept the peace and the service of soldiers, sailors and airmen abroad; the advances of our scientists; and the public’s acts of charity. Around our Thanksgiving tables, we measure our successes in smaller, more intimate terms.
And because Thanksgiving will come again, and because the American Dream has yet to be realized perfectly in this or any year, the work continues. Thanksgiving lets us be grateful while acknowledging the world’s imperfection, to recognize our personal and national good fortune not as a resting place, but as resources for the long toil that lies ahead.
Of all the Thanksgiving proclamations I read, the one that lingered most with me was Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 declaration. It’s a celebration, but read today, it also feels like a warning:
During the last year the Lord has dealt bountifully with us, giving us peace at home and abroad and the chance for our citizens to work for their welfare unhindered by war, famine or plague. It [behooves] us not only to rejoice greatly because of what has been given us, but to accept it with a solemn sense of responsibility, realizing that under Heaven it rests with us ourselves to show that we are worthy to use aright what has thus been entrusted to our care. . . .
We pray for strength, and light, so that in the coming years we may with cleanliness, fearlessness, and wisdom, do our allotted work on the earth in such manner as to show that we are not altogether unworthy of the blessings we have received.
That same task lies us before us today. With Roosevelt’s words, and that work in mind, my colleagues at The Washington Post Opinions section wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.