A National Thanksgiving: President Washington and America’s National Holiday

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Thanksgiving Day, 2014.

Thanksgiving is a peculiar holiday, at least in the modern world. Its roots are religious, and the American nation is, at least in law, secular. Its very name speaks of thanks, or gratitude, and gratitude is an ancient virtue. Indeed, Aristotle speaks highly of it. Even so, or perhaps for that reason, it is very American. In his Thanksgiving address in 1922, President Coolidge called it “perhaps the most characteristic of our national observances.” He was not wrong for, as Chesterton wrote, America is “a nation with the soul of a church,” and Abraham Lincoln called us an “almost chosen people.”

The holiday reminds us, in other words, of the peculiar character of the American nation, and of the President’s role in it. Strictly speaking, to be an American is to be an American citizen. When one calls someone an American, the first definition one usually has in mind is political. By contrast, when one says that someone is Chinese or Turkish, the first thought is of an ethnic or racial identity. Even so, there is an American culture. Hence it is very common to say that something is “very American.” Thanksgiving itself deserves that moniker. Is it a constitutional observance?  That’s an open question.

In this holiday we see how the peculiar character of the Presidency compliments our exceptional nationality. Constitutionally speaking, the President is merely the American CEO. His job is to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and in his oath, he swears to “execute the office of the President” and pledges to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.”  The oath says nothing about the American “nation.” Indeed the word “nation” does not appear in the Constitution, except in Article I, Section 8 when discussing relations with “foreign nations” and the “law of nations.” Strictly speaking, the President’s job is to put into effect the laws that Congress passes and to defend the “supreme law of the land.” Even so, the President is, in fact, head of state, and the leader of the American people. It is no surprise that the American president has, in time, acquired the trappings of a monarch—think of the entourage he travels with, the way he’s treated at the State of the Union address, the language with which we discuss the “White House’ and its parts, such as the “West Wing.” And a monarch is more than a CEO. He is the leader of the nation, in the classical sense of the nation.

George Washington set the tone for the office in many ways, none more so than in his Thanksgiving Proclamation, given in October, 1789, seven months after he took the oath of office. Why have such a proclamation at all? Where in Article I, Section 8 (the section that lists the powers the people gave the federal government) is the power to proclaim a federal holiday? In 1791 James Madison would criticize Alexander Hamilton’s assertion that the U.S. government has the authority to create a national bank, for nowhere in the Constitution did the people give the federal government the right to create a bank or to create a corporation (an entity that had traditionally been regarded as a “person” in the eyes of the law).   And fourteen years later, the Louisiana Purchase would tie President Jefferson in knots, for nowhere did the people give the U.S. government the right to acquire territory. Yet Madison lost the national bank argument in 1791 and by 1816 he had changed his mind about its constitutionality. Meanwhile, Jefferson didn’t stop the Senate from ratifying the Louisiana Purchase. In other words, he and Madison implicitly accepted that there are some powers that belong to government due to the nature of the thing, and when the people created the U.S. government they, of necessity, allowed it those powers without which no government can function.

The authority to proclaim a Thanksgiving might seem trivial to us—mere words, and an idle declaration.  But it is, in fact, fraught with meaning, for the assumption of such authority highlights the degree to which a President is, by nature, much like a monarch—albeit an elected one. Similarly, it points us to the limits of secular nationalism.

Consider President Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. He begins with the universal “duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” But then he stops, as if he knew some might ask why the President is involved. Washington goes on, “Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me ‘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 and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a a form of government for their safety and happiness.’” Congress asked Washington to proclaim the day. An interesting request. Congress did not pass a law proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving. Such an act may, according to some constructions of the Constitution, have crossed over into an establishment of religion. Instead, they have merely asked the President to “recommend” such an observance to the people. But if it’s not a law, wherefore does the authority come from? It must adhere in the nature of the thing.

What is the power of a Presidential “recommendation”? Quite a bit, actually. And that is because the President is, as a practical matter, a national father figure. Those of us who are theoretically minded may fuss and fume that there is nothing in the Constitution suggesting such a role, and it is certainly true that there are many Americans who do not see it that way. It is nonetheless true that the President has always had such authority for a significant portion of the country. Even those who object to a particular President or his policies are often reacting as an unhappy child. And that is why a Presidential “recommendation” even of a merely ceremonial sort is simply the nature of the thing. (I am not referring to the modern practice of the President or his minions “recommending” to businesses or Universities that they adopt certain practices. There is no implicit Presidential “or else” in this kind of proclamation.) A few states tried operating without a unitary executive in the years after 1776. The experiment was a failure. By the early 1790s, even Pennsylvania gave up on the effort. And once there is such an executive for the nation as a whole, he becomes “his elective majesty” even if we Americans are loathe to admit it.

That is what is so significant about the opening line of Washington’s Proclamation. He speaks of the “duty of all nations.” Such a declaration implies that nations are all alike in some ways. No nation is or can be exceptional in that regard. A nation, by nature, is a being in a moral universe. In the middle of the Thanksgiving Proclamation, Washington points back to the Declaration of Independence, noting that Americans are grateful “for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness.” Americans should be grateful for the American experiment, the effort to show that men are capable of creating governments based upon “reflection and choice” as the first Federalist puts it. Even nations with governments under constitutions that are delegations of powers by the people cannot change the nature of the thing. And that means that national morality is a fundamental concern. At the start of the Defence of the Constitutions John Adams would link the two: “The people of America have now the best opportunity and the greatest trust in their hands, that Providence ever committed to so small a number since the transgression of the first pair. If they betray their trust, their guilt will merit even greater punishment than other nations have suffered, and the indignation of heaven.”

As Washington noted in his First inaugural Address, nations and individuals alike are judged by a common standard. The Universe being moral, nations that stink with injustice will, almost invariably (the ways of the Almighty being mysterious) suffer, just as individuals who do evil are punished, “since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity;  . . . the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” President Lincoln would quote the Gospel saying much the same thing “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” In other words, just as a national government has certain powers because of the nature of the thing so, too, is it the case that nations must, by nature, behave in certain ways if they wish to flourish and prosper. That being the case, it is fitting that we, the American people, pause at periodic intervals and give thanks to the being who Created us, and who, in Washington’s words, we hope will “grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.” Happy Thanksgiving.