A Song of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving was an established tradition well before the United States came into being. While most Americans are taught that Plymouth Colony’s harvest festival with local Native Americans in the fall of 1621 was the first Thanksgiving, as Virginians we know that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated at Berkeley Plantation in 1619, before the founding of the Massachusetts colony at Plymouth.
In any event, two colonies 600 miles apart in the New World inhabited by colonists who came here for different reasons from the Old World chose to mark their success with a ritual of thanks to God. This is a ritual we keep down to our own day. This fact says something important about our origins as a nation.
Of course, another Virginian, George Washington, is central to the holiday’s history. As the first President of the United States under the Constitution, he issued a proclamation setting aside Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a day of Thanksgiving. The proclamation came at the recommendation of Congress, which had urged that the American people honor:
. . . 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 form of government for their safety and happiness.
Washington suggested the American people give thanks for the establishment of a new government under the Constitution, but also all that had led to it. Even for the trials of the Revolution, he recommended gratitude for “the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence.”
Over 200 years have passed since the Father of Our Country issued his proclamation. The United States has achieved successes Washington could never have imagined. These continued successes underline the continued need for a day of thankful reflection, a time to take stock of our blessings and offer up gratitude for them. As one of Washington’s successors, Calvin Coolidge (whose right-hand man in the White House was another Virginian, C. Bascom Slemp of Big Stone Gap), put it in a Thanksgiving proclamation of his own, “We have been a most favored people. We ought to be a most generous people. We have been a most blessed people. We ought to be a most thankful people.”
Washington finished his proclamation by recommending prayers of supplication for the future, urging Americans to ask God:
. . . 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; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord.
Faithfulness to our values and our Constitution, justice, peace. As we gather around the table this Thanksgiving, we can pray for the same today.
So this Thanksgiving, let us find guidance from wise examples of forebears like George Washington, and let all of us of every faith give thanks for our many blessings. I personally like the words of the hymn “Let All Things Now Living,” written by Katherine Davis and set to a Welsh tune, which offer a fine expression of this sentiment:
Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving
To God our Creator triumphantly raise,
Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us,
Who guideth us on to the end of our days.
His banners are o’er us, his light goes before us,
A pillar of fire shining forth in the night,
‘Til shadows have vanished and darkness is banished,
As forward we travel from light into light.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Read the full text of George Washington’s first Thanksgiving proclamation here.