By all appearances, Americans have nothing left in common. The divide between the Left and Right worsens. Americans’ general trust in civic institutions has declined.
Any shared vision of the common good seems beyond our reach. And the very principles of the American founding are under daily attack.
Yet, despite our deep political strife, Americans continue to celebrate Thanksgiving year after year. Most take the day off work to spend time with friends and family. Others worry they will have no one to celebrate with.
Some take it upon themselves to invite the lonely neighbor or third cousin twice removed. Many set aside their political differences for the sake of familial harmony.
The fact that Americans have carried on this tradition may strike some as puzzling.
But it gains significance in light of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of Thanksgiving’s purpose: to offer thanks to the Creator.
George Washington first recommended a day of Thanksgiving in 1789 shortly after the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Abraham Lincoln later made it an official holiday celebrated on the last Thursday of each November.
As Americans carry on the Thanksgiving tradition, we should strive to retain its underlying purpose as Washington and Lincoln articulated.
Both presidents believed we owe our Creator gratitude for the gifts he freely bestows upon us out of an abundant mercy. Washington and Lincoln saw Thanksgiving as a day in which Americans recognize the unique blessings of liberty and prosperity God bestowed upon the nation.
In his 1789 Thanksgiving Address, Washington urged the American people to “unite in the rendering unto [God] our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation—for the single and manifold mercies, and for the favorable interpretation of His providence in the course and conclusion of the last war.”
Washington saw Thanksgiving as a day “to be devoted by the people of these states to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Abraham Lincoln echoed Washington’s gratitude in his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Amid the Civil War, Lincoln urged the American people to offer up thanks to their Creator, and to do so with “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” and “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers.”
Lincoln’s speech followed the Battle of Gettysburg. Despite great casualties, Lincoln thanked the Creator for the Union Army’s victory:
“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
As Lincoln observed, God poured out blessings on the American people through no act of their own. He believed these gifts should be “solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”
Lincoln urged the American people, amid deadly strife, to thank their Creator for the blessings of liberty and prosperity bestowed upon them.
Despite political strife, we continue to celebrate this American holiday up to the present day.
If modern life centers on merely the measurable—output, planning, profit, efficiency—Thanksgiving becomes even more difficult to explain.
It seems Washington and Lincoln’s shared insight rings true. We owe gratitude to something, or someone, beyond ourselves. Our continued Thanksgiving tradition may reflect a deeper longing to transcend the current moment. As the 20th century German philosopher Josef Pieper observed, true leisure consists of worship and giving thanks to the Creator.
If nothing else, this lasting desire for true leisure, expressed through gratitude, is what continues to unite Americans as one nation, under God.
This piece originally appeared in the Daily Caller