A day to give thanks for our nation’s origins

Thanksgiving is food, football and family, and we Americans make heroic efforts to unite all three, traveling great distances in often-dodgy weather to enjoy them. The sweet sorrow of having to return from that happy gathering makes Sunday the most heavily traveled day of the year.

This year, the observance of Thanksgiving is given additional significance because of the attention being paid to the opening of the holiday shopping season on Friday as a sign of how well we’re recovering from the recession.

It wouldn’t hurt to reflect, this year especially, on how deeply political a celebration is Thanksgiving, and we mean “political” in a good way.

The first Thanksgiving, in 1621, was celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags in thanks for the Indians helping the newcomers survive their brutal first winter in a harsh land. It also celebrated the survival of something else — an embryonic form of government.

On their arrival the previous year, 41 of the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact, pledging a “civil body politic” to enact such “just and equal laws” as may be needed “for the general good of the Colony.” And thus did democracy come to the New World.

And thanks for this form of government was never far from mind in subsequent proclamations of a Day of Thanksgiving.

President George Washington proclaimed the first truly national day in 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified, calling on the people to thank God for “affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” President Abraham Lincoln felt confident enough about the course of the Civil War to proclaim Thanksgiving Day in 1863.

He gave thanks that foreign states had stayed out of the war and that “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 theatre of military conflict. …” Sadly, that conflict had another 16 bloody months to run.

To return to Washington for a moment, the first president used his proclamation to set out a sort of mission statement for Thanksgiving, when we call upon the “Lord and Ruler of Nations … to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, 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.”

That’s worth a toast this Thanksgiving. Have a safe and wonderful holiday.

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