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Thankful then as now

November 24, 2005

THANKSGIVING HAS ALWAYS posed problems for those who favor a stout wall separating church and state. Today is a fundamentally religious, Judeo-Christian holiday that was created by the federal government -- and is deeply enshrined in its traditions. Anyone who doubts this should look at our nation's

first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation, signed in 1789 by George Washington.

But piety is only part of the message that presidents from that George to the present one have conveyed in their proclamations. The annual Thanksgiving Day message has long provided an opportunity for sweeping assessments of the state of the nation and its greatest threats, challenges and accomplishments. Many presidents have found it impossible to resist the temptation to insert a political statement.

After the stock market crash of October 1929, Herbert Hoover used his Thanksgiving proclamation to emphasize the nation's prosperity. In November 1941, just a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt boosted his campaign to keep Americans engaged in the fight against Nazism by eloquently praising the nation's support for its overseas allies.

But the most moving Thanksgiving proclamation was the one that created the holiday as we know it. Though Washington issued the first presidential proclamation, it was only intended to establish Nov. 26, 1789, as a national holiday, not to create an annual tradition. That tradition started in the midst of the Civil War, when the nation had perhaps less to be thankful for than at any time in its history. Yet Abraham Lincoln in 1863 was determined to tell a fractured nation that there was still hope, and to offer a heartfelt prayer for healing amid the bloodshed.

Whether one offers gratitude to God, family, friends or even business associates, Thanksgiving is about counting our blessings, not our curses. Despite the threat of terrorism at home and the reality of war abroad, even in the face of unprecedented natural disaster and enduring poverty, America still enjoys a degree of peace and prosperity that previous generations could have only dreamed about.

Some of the presidential proclamations below run in their entirety; others are excerpts.

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Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to 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 and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness":

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, 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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him 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 signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; 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; ... and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

George Washington, Oct. 3, 1789

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The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

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