By Congressman Gary Palmer

In 1789, President George Washington issued one of the first presidential proclamations for a national “day of thanks.” Such days of recognition and celebration were fairly common throughout the early states, but President Washington issued this announcement in order to highlight the newly established U.S. Constitution. In his proclamation, he focused on the many blessings Americans had to be thankful for in light of their recently won freedom from British rule and the formation of their new constitutional government. He reflected on how God had brought their young nation through many hardships to achieve its official beginning, and even at that early stage of the country, encouraged his fellow countrymen to recognize the gift they had in the American ideals of liberty and peace. He wrote that he recommended this national day of thanksgiving so that,

“…we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation – for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war – for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed – for 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 – for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us…”

More than 200 years after this proclamation, though our national circumstances are now quite different, I’m struck by how many of President Washington’s words still ring true today, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving. Then, Americans were figuring out how to carry on after a costly and tiring war, how to govern themselves, and how to live together peaceably. Today, many of us are exhausted from a pandemic and wondering how to recover from the losses wrought by COVID or economic hardship. And though we have now been the United States of America for a long time, we are still working out how to best govern ourselves and live together. Divisions and tensions may even feel insurmountable right now.

But consider George Washington’s position when he made that proclamation of thanksgiving in 1789. The American colonies were not yet too far away from the Revolution and still felt the effects of it. Their concept of governance was new and people disagreed passionately about how it should look. The Constitution was brand new and still needed work, and those in authority had major disagreements about it. As a recently formed nation, America certainly still faced the threat of disunity. Yet, Washington emphasized thankfulness and pointed out the many blessings to be had in America. Though tensions abounded and the country faced serious work to move forward in unity, it had won independence against incredible odds. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offered a remarkable foundation, despite the work that still needed to be done to ensure the survival of self-governance.

Today, as many of us still reel from the pandemic and its effects, or feel exhausted by the news cycle and tense politics, I think President Washington’s 1789 proclamation for that day of thanks remains an example for us. Just as George Washington encouraged his fellow citizens in 1789 to give thanks for how God had guided and preserved the country so far, for the establishment of the Constitution, and for the civil and religious liberties enjoyed in America, we too can give thanks for these things. The foundation that the colonies had then is still the same foundation we have now and can continue to build upon, and few countries in the world can boast a better starting point than the U.S. Constitution. As we debate how to run our country, we can take comfort in the fact that our predecessors wrestled with many of the same questions. Despite the struggles of carrying our nation forward into the future, and despite these fraught times, we are still blessed to be Americans and blessed to still enjoy those ideals of liberty President Washington talked about.

I hope reading his words from this proclamation offers not only another reminder of the Thanksgiving holiday, but a challenge to reflect on how much we have to be truly grateful for as Americans, no matter how tense the disagreements may sometimes feel. I also hope they motivate us to commit afresh to fighting for our founding ideals, as they seem to come under attack in new forms every year. As President Washington gave thanks for the preservation and favor of God that allowed America to form as a nation, let’s give thanks now for how we have continued to be preserved to grow into that “more perfect union” the Constitution speaks of, and determine to keep working to become an even more perfect one in the years ahead.