Believe it or not, the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate this week was extremely controversial when it was first proposed to Congress by Representative Elias Boudinot in 1789, on the day Congress passed the constitutional amendments that would become our Bill of Rights. Thankful for the spirit of compromise and cooperation that Congress had displayed, which Boudinot believed was a harbinger of the new government’s future success, he introduced a resolution requesting that President Washington “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 signal favors of Almighty God … ”
The Anti-Federalists in Congress, who had originally opposed the Constitution for being too powerful (but ran for Congress anyway to ensure an Anti-Federalist presence in the new government) immediately objected, claiming neither Congress nor the president had the power to create a national holiday, especially one with religious overtones. One Anti-Federalist even objected that giving thanks for a new government that hadn’t yet proven its worth was truly jumping the gun. Another claimed that this was not a matter for the national government, but for the state governments, which should individually decide whether to proclaim a thanksgiving holiday, and what language, religious or otherwise, the proclamation should include.
Nevertheless, both the House and Senate passed Boudinot’s resolution, meaning the decision to make it official was Washington’s. Washington was a member of the Anglican Church, but a firm believer in the language of what would become the first of our constitutional amendments, which said the government can’t interfere with either the “establishment” of a religion or its “free exercise.” Anyone could worship however they wanted.
Therefore, he saw no objection to this religiously neutral proclamation, and, like Boudinot, he thought the people should be grateful for their many recent successes, including winning the American Revolution and creating a new government that had made an excellent start. Further, as the first head of that government’s executive branch — meaning he would set precedents that would be followed by his successors and recognized by the other governmental branches — he wanted to establish a “strong and energetic” presidency. He believed issuing this national proclamation was an opportunity to impress upon the nation that the national government, including the presidency, is the highest authority. Therefore, included in the proclamation was language asking God “to render our national government a blessing to all of the people, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws … ”
Amen, because, for all its imperfections, the national government the Constitution created remains “a blessing to all of the people,” which is truly something we should be thankful for this Thanksgiving.