The following is adapted from a speech delivered on October 18, 2016, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., as part of the AWC Family Foundation Lecture Series.
One Fourth of July in the 1980s, when I was living in Hong Kong, I read a tidbit in a local newspaper about America’s Independence Day. Across the United States today, the columnist declared, families are celebrating the birth of their nation by sitting down to turkey dinners with all the trimmings.
The expatriate American community in what was then a British colony shared a chuckle over the columnist’s confusion about America’s national holidays. But it also set me to thinking. In some sense, the error was a natural one. A non-American could be forgiven for conflating these two home-grown American holidays. Both bind celebrants to the larger history of our nation.
Thanksgiving isn’t a patriotic holiday per se, but it is full of patriotic feeling as Americans give thanks for our shared blessings as a nation. The best expression of this aspect of Thanksgiving comes from Benjamin Franklin, who called it a day “of public Felicity,” a time to express gratitude to God for the “full Enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious.”
Just about every country has a national day—a holiday when citizens stop to honor their constitution or celebrate a monarch’s birthday or recall their day of liberation from colonial rule. The United States isn’t unique in celebrating its Independence Day. But Thanksgiving is something else. Only a few other countries set aside a day of thanksgiving. Most of these are harvest festivals, celebrations that trace their origins back to when life beat to the rhythm of the agricultural cycle.
America’s Thanksgiving holiday is something different. We live in a less religious age than did the Pilgrims. But it would be a mistake to claim, as some do, that Thanksgiving is not religious. It is that rarest of religious holidays, one that all religions can celebrate. The Pilgrims came to our shores seeking freedom to worship as they pleased. On Thanksgiving, Americans of all faiths—and of none—can give thanks that they found it.
Thanksgiving has grown up with the country. Many of our greatest historical figures are associated with it: George Washington, who proclaimed our first national Thanksgiving amid controversy over his constitutional power to do so—and who included in his proclamation Americans of every faith; Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to heal a war-torn nation when he called for all Americans, North and South, to mark the same day of Thanksgiving; and Franklin Roosevelt, who set off a national debate when he changed the holiday’s traditional date.
Ordinary Americans played their part too: Sarah Josepha Hale, the 19th-century magazine editor who campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday; the New England Indians who boycotted Thanksgiving in the 1970s, calling it a day of mourning; and the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which recently launched Giving Tuesday, following in the long American tradition of remembering the poor and needy around Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving says a lot about Americans. It reflects our national identity as a grateful, generous, and inclusive people. When an American takes his place at the Thanksgiving table or volunteers at a local food bank he is part of a continuum that dates back to 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians sat together for three days to share food and fellowship. The friendly coexistence between the English settlers and the Native Americans would last only a few decades longer. But that original Thanksgiving pointed the way to the diverse people we have become.
Many aspects of the holiday are of interest, including the days of thanksgiving in Florida, Texas, and Virginia that predate the more familiar one in Plymouth and compete for the title of “first”; a now almost forgotten holiday called Forefathers Day, which influenced the modern Thanksgiving; the way in which football became part of our Thanksgiving rituals; and, of course, how it came to pass that on the fourth Thursday in November most Americans sit down to the same meal of turkey, cranberries, potatoes, and pie.
What I want to emphasize, though, is the aspect of the holiday that Ben Franklin particularly admired: that it is a time for expressing gratitude for the “full Enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious.” In doing so, I’ll give an illustration from each of the centuries since America’s original Thanksgiving, from the 17th to the 21st.