The dialogue of hope
by Gary Kaplan
Giving thanks is a primordial human behavior. Ancient sacrificial rituals served the dual purpose of expressing gratitude for survival in a hostile environment and beseeching omnipotent deities to ensure future survival. These rites were the earliest form of insurance policy. Representations in image and word range from cave paintings to hieroglyphs to scriptural injunctions to the sacrificial turkey on Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover.
The received history of the American ritual begins in 1621 in Plymouth with the pilgrims and the Wampanoag and continues to the Macy’s parade in Herald Square and on the television screen.
There have been 163 presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamations. Three are of special interest this year because they go beyond invocations of divine beneficence to refer to political issues.
President Washington’s 1789 proclamation, the first under the new Constitution which had been ratified the previous year after ten months of raucous national debate, expressed thankfulness for the “opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government….”1
President Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863 included a warning to foreign states and an assurance of victory to the domestic audience:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. 2
Our current holiday was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on November 8, 1941, thirty days before Pearl Harbor. Germany had occupied almost all of Europe and invaded the Soviet Union. The Luftwaffe was bombing London every night. Japan had seized much of East Asia. Though the war had begun on September 1, 1939, with the invasion of Poland, the isolationist US Congress still refused to recognize the threat to Fortress America.
Roosevelt’s proclamation, the shortest of the three, reads like a secular prayer.
I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate and set aside Thursday, the twentieth day of November, 1941, [later changed to the 4th Thursday] as a day to be observed in giving thanks to the Heavenly Source of our earthly blessings.
Our beloved country is free and strong. Our moral and physical defenses against the forces of threatened aggression are mounting daily in magnitude and effectiveness.
In the interest of our own future, we are sending succor at increasing pace [the Lend-Lease program] to those peoples abroad who are bravely defending their homes and their precious liberties against annihilation.
We have not lost our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our proud belief in the right of all people to live out their lives in freedom and with equal treatment. The love of democracy still burns brightly in our hearts. …
Let us ask the Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life against the forces of evil and slavery which seek in these days to encompass us.3
This is a prayer not to a deity but to Congress.
Despite two years of daily radio broadcasts and newsreels from occupied Europe and bombed-out London, the isolationists in Congress still did not believe that vital American interests were threatened. They opposed Roosevelt’s efforts even to aid Britain with ships and materiel right up to December 7, 1941.
Let us ask the Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life and our precious liberties.
Similar entreaties are being addressed to Congress in these days. We know the issues and the events. The right to vote, the foundation of democratic government, is being dismantled. The election system is being corrupted into a partisan political machine. The Capitol was attacked, not by foreign invaders, but by American citizens.
Congress and the electorate are divided. The divisions run along familiar fissures of economic interest, ethnicity, culture and class.
But something is different this time. The three previous presidents were all able to appeal to shared values.
Washington could extol “the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have… enjoyed… the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government ….”
Lincoln, in the midst of civil war, could speak of laws respected and obeyed, and harmony prevailing everywhere.
Roosevelt could affirm “our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our proud belief in the right of all people to live out their lives in freedom and with equal treatment.” He could assert that “The love of democracy still burns brightly in our hearts.”
All three presidents spoke to unquestioned common values. How unquestioned are those values today?
This year, the threat is not from abroad. It is from within. Our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our belief in the right of all people to live in freedom and with equal treatment is in question.
And yet, “We have not lost our faith…The love of democracy still burns.“
These are words that could be spoken by President Biden, whose rhetoric echoes FDR’s. Similar words are spoken every day by public officials in Washington, in state houses, and in city halls across the country. The values espoused by Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt still animate our national dialogue. They still resonate in our internal dialogues.
We can be thankful this year that we are still hearing this dialogue. We can hope and pray that we will be hearing it more loudly next year.
Gary Kaplan is the Executive Director of JFYNetWorks
Other posts authored by Gary can be found here.
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