Presidential tradition of giving thanks often ignored current crises



November 26, 2019 - 10:50 AM

Thanksgiving is older even than the nation. And while early Thanksgivings involving Pilgrims and Indians weren’t the idealized banquets many of us learned about in school, they were days on which Americans made time for sharing, prayer and gratitude.

After the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, George Washington was elected president. Within six months of taking office, he released a proclamation making Thursday the 26th day of November, 1789, a day of Thanksgiving.

In his proclamation, Washington noted the recent war and the “peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness.”

Always mindful of the model of leadership he was establishing, Washington also said Americans should pray that God would enable those in private and public roles “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.”

Over the years, flowery rhetoric would come with most presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, but some of the messages also provide a sense of the challenges, crises or issues facing the country at the time.

The proclamation of 1863 — signed by Abraham Lincoln but written by Secretary of State William Seward — is cited as the one in which the president set a nationwide standard that the final Thursday in November be observed as the national holiday. 

What struck me about the proclamation that year was the degree to which Seward downplayed the Civil War and its toll on Americans. At one point, he declares, “and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.”

Yeah, except for that.

Undoubtedly, some years it’s easier for presidents to highlight reasons to offer thanks. That’s true for most of us as individuals, as we journey through life. The country too has periods in which the blessings are obvious, and those when danger and turmoil risk blotting out the positive.

President Herbert Hoover chose to downplay the bad times in his Thanksgiving proclamations, writing in 1931: “The measure of passing adversity which has come upon us should deepen the spiritual life of the people, quicken their sympathies and spirit of sacrifice for others, and strengthen their courage.”

Of course, Hoover had no way of knowing at the time that the “measure of passing adversity” would last a decade.

Good times make it easier for presidents, especially for men such as Teddy Roosevelt, whose propensity for hyperbole almost matches that of our current president.

He wrote in 1906: “Never before in our history or in the history of any other nation has a people enjoyed more abounding material prosperity than is ours.”

Yet, Roosevelt said, that wasn’t enough.

“Material well-being, indispensable tho it is, can never be anything but the foundation of true national greatness and happiness. If we build nothing upon this foundation, then our national life will be as meaningless and empty as a house where only the foundation has been laid. Upon our material well-being must be built a superstructure of individual and national life lived in accordance with the laws of the highest morality, or else our prosperity itself will in the long run turn out a curse instead of a blessing.”

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.