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Guide for Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

Reading: “Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1789” By George Washington

Introduction

How To Use This Discussion Guide

Begin by reading George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Proclamation” on our site or in your copy of What So Proudly We Hail.

Materials for this guide include background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Christopher DeMuth (Hudson Institute) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.


About the Author

For any American, George Washington (1732–99) is—or ought to be—a man who needs no introduction. Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the War of American Independence (1775–83), president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and unanimously chosen to be the first president of the United States (1789–97), Washington has long enjoyed the deserved reputation as the Father of his Country. Universally admired for his courage, integrity, and judgment, Washington had great influence and power as the nation’s first president. But ever mindful of the precedents that he would be setting for future leadership, he took pains to cultivate practices and manners that would stand the nation in good stead long after he was gone from the scene. Such considerations appear evident in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, Washington’s (and the nation’s) first presidential proclamation, issued in the first year of his first term as President of the United States.

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking about the Text

Summary

In colonial times, Thanksgiving was a harvest festival, in which the colonists offered thanks to God Almighty for a good harvest, sometimes by feasting, sometimes by fasting. Such a holiday was celebrated already in the Spanish colony of Florida in the sixteenth century, and in the British colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, most famously in 1621, when the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation celebrated their first successful harvest in the company of some of the Native American tribesmen. Thanksgiving became a regularly celebrated national holiday only during the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of national Thanksgiving in 1863, and each president since has annually issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations. The date for the holiday was set as the fourth Thursday in November by an act of Congress only in 1941.

But the first day of national Thanksgiving was proclaimed by George Washington in the first year of the new American republic, whose appearance on the world stage—after the perilous Revolutionary War, the failure of the Articles of Confederation, and the contentious Constitutional Convention—seemed little short of miraculous. Washington spoke not of harvests but (mainly) of matters political.


Section Overview

The structure of his proclamation is straightforward. After the formal introductory opening—“By the President of the United States of America. A Proclamation.”—the three paragraphs deal in turn with the reasons President Washington is issuing the proclamation, the things for which he recommends we give thanks to God, and the things for which we should humbly offer God our prayers and supplications.


Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: Christopher DeMuth reads the Thanksgiving Proclamation.

A. The Reasons for the Proclamation
  1. What are the two reasons Washington gives for issuing the proclamation?
  2. How are they related to each other? Which do you think is more important?
  3. Why does Washington emphasize that he is only doing his duty and acceding to Congress’s request?
  4. Why does Congress ask him merely to “recommend” a day of public thanks-giving and prayer?
  5. To whom is the proclamation addressed? What does it recommend that they do?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What are the two reasons Washington gives for issuing the proclamation?

B. The Things for Which Thanks Should Be Given
  1. Make a list of the several items in the proclamation (second paragraph) for which thanks should be given. Do you see any order in the list?
  2. Which items do you think are most important? To Washington? To us today?
  3. To whom are thanks to be given? What view of the divine is operative here?
  4. Are the “great and various favors which He hath been pleased to bestow on us” personal and private or communal and public? What is the relation between the private and public blessings?
  5. What do you think of Washington’s language? Can you find in it echoes of the Bible or of the Constitution? (Compare, for instance, the language of the final paragraph to St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 2, or to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution)
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: For what blessings does Washington recommend we give thanks?

C. The Things for Which We Should Pray
  1. Make a list of the several items for which prayer should be made (third paragraph). Do you see any order in the list?
  2. Which items do you think are most important? To Washington? To us today?
  3. Why does Washington begin with the prayer “to pardon our national and other transgressions”? Which national transgressions might he have in mind?
  4. What do you make of the double prayer “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue and the encrease of science among them and Us” (emphasis added)? How does Washington see the relation between religion and science?
  5. What do you make of the qualification in the final prayer for temporal prosperity: that it be (only) of “such a degree . . . as he alone knows to be best”? Were you to pray for prosperity today, would you include such a qualifying clause?
Video Excerpt 4
WATCH: For what things does Washington recommend we pray?

D. Washington’s Purposes

  1. What does Washington hope the Proclamation will accomplish?
  2. In both the paragraph about thanksgiving and the paragraph about prayers, Washington speaks about the people uniting: “That we may then all unite in rendering him our sincere and humble thanks”; “that we may then unite in humbly offering our prayers and supplications.” What kind of unity is he proposing for his fellow citizens? Why does Washington think it important?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

Thinking With The Text

Section Overview

Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation raises questions about the role of government in our private and religious lives, about the place of religion and piety in the American political order, about the connection between our public and our private—and between our natural and our political—blessings. It also invites questions about the meaning of the holiday of Thanksgiving and the role it should play in American life today.


A. Government, Private Life, and Religion
  1. Should government in a free society be in the position of recommending a day of service to God? Is Washington’s Proclamation a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution?
  2. Can a governmental—or any other—proclamation such as this induce the gratitude that it recommends? Or is genuine gratitude something that cannot be willed? If so, can setting aside time for gratitude make room for its expression?
Video Excerpt 1
WATCH: Can a governmental proclamation such as this induce the gratitude that it recommends?

B. Religion, Piety, and the American Political Order

  1. What is the relation between the strength of the American nation and the spirit of religion?
  2. Can the United States of America do without a connection to something higher than itself?

C. Public and Private Blessings

  1. Thanksgiving was, to begin with, a holiday of the harvest, expressing thanks to God for the bounty of nature. Washington’s Proclamation emphasizes mainly the blessings of our political—constitutional—order. Is one more important than the other? For which should we Americans today be most grateful?
  2. On what do our greatest blessings depend? God and nature? Human enhancement of the gifts of nature and/or nature’s God? Fortune? Something else?
  3. To what extent are our private and personal blessings dependent on public and political ones?
  4. When we gather around our own Thanksgiving tables, for what are we inclined to be most grateful? For private and personal goods and joys? For communal and political benefits? For divine gifts?
  5. For what should we give thanks this year, as American citizens? For what should we be praying, as American citizens?

D. Thanksgiving and the National Calendar
  1. What is special about Thanksgiving as a national holiday today? Is it a public or a private and familial holiday?
  2. What is the place of Thanksgiving on our national calendar? How does it compare—in substance, tone, and manner of celebration—to the Fourth of July?
  3. How does Thanksgiving express American identity and American character?
  4. What does Thanksgiving contribute to American identity and American character?
  5. Does our current mode of celebrating Thanksgiving—centered around huge family feasts—fit the deeper meaning of the holiday? What could be added to your own family celebration that might make the day more meaningful?
  6. John Adams, who succeeded George Washington as president, recommended a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer rather than a Thanksgiving Proclamation. What do you think of this idea? Would a more somber fast add something that is currently missing in our Thanksgiving rituals?
  7. Can there be genuine thanksgiving on a purely secular foundation?
  8. Can there be a solid and enduring political order on a purely secular foundation?
Video Excerpt 2
WATCH: What is special about Thanksgiving as a national holiday?
Video Excerpt 3
WATCH: What is the place of Thanksgiving on our national calendar?

The video seminar helps capture the experience of high-level discourse as particpants interact and elicit meaning from classic American texts. To watch the full conversation, click here. Otherwise click below to continue.

ONLINE DISCUSSION