Each Thanksgiving calls to mind early Thanksgivings — at Plymouth in 1621, of course, but perhaps also in the nation’s capital in 1789. In October of that year, just months into the nation’s new constitutional government, President Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. Its words of gratitude to “the beneficent Author of all the good” in our world, “for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us,” would ring familiar around American tables today, even in the most difficult of years.
Washington’s proclamation became a landmark, quoted to this day; but it was preceded by a brief debate in Congress that, though less famous, would also ring familiar today, albeit for rather less happy reasons.
On September 25, 1789, New Jersey representative Elias Boudinot introduced a resolution asking the president to announce a day of national thanksgiving, and his proposal was immediately criticized. Among the critics was Representative Thomas Tucker, of South Carolina, who argued that any words of gratitude for our new Constitution would be premature.
“Why,” Tucker asked, “should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do? They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness. We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced.”
Tucker’s criticism failed to stop the House from approving Boudinot’s resolution, and the Senate soon passed it too, prompting the president’s proclamation a few days later. Yet Tucker’s question persists, in his time and in ours: Why should we be grateful for a Constitution that was imperfect in its creation; abided the profound evils of slavery and Jim Crow for nearly two centuries more; and fails to prevent the increasingly fractious politics of our own day?
Washington saw a reason. Among the many things for which his proclamation offers gratitude is this: “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.” That is, the mere fact that the newly independent American people had gathered in their capitols and towns, to write and ratify new constitutions, was an immense achievement; the fact that they eventually wrote and ratified a new constitution for the United States, an unprecedented document for a contested form of federal republic, was astounding.
Two years earlier, when the Constitution was being debated, the challenge of achieving such a high-minded goal was palpable. Alexander Hamilton emphasized it in the opening lines of The Federalist. “It has been frequently remarked,” he wrote, “that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
“If there be any truth in the remark,” Hamilton continued, then “the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
These high stakes “will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event,” he continued. “Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.” But, he conceded, “This is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”
Washington’s proclamation recognizes that the Founding generation had in fact met that challenge, and that it deserved the respect of a grateful nation. Indeed, by ascribing this accomplishment not merely to his era’s statesmen and citizens, but to “the providence of Almighty God,” Washington suggested that the creation of the Constitution required a near superhuman degree of public spiritedness on the part of the people who wrote the Constitution in Philadelphia and ratified it in the 13 states. Or to borrow Hamilton’s line, if failure would have entailed “the general misfortune” of all mankind, then success brought great fortune to it.
Gratitude and Posterity
The Constitution’s opening lines offer a telling phrase on this point. In its famous “We the People” preamble, where the Constitution’s authors announced their intent to “form a more perfect Union” and achieve other ends, the authors conclude with their desire to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This language reminds us that the Constitution was, and was intended to be, a labor of one generation on behalf of generations to come.
Some of the Founders expressed this sentiment elsewhere, of course. “I must study Politicks and War,” John Adams wrote to Abigail in 1780, “that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy,” and that their children, in turn, would enjoy “a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Such things are, after all, among the blessings of liberty secured by the Founding. But these blessings were being secured not just for future Adamses, but for America — and if not all Americans at first, then for more and more with each passing generation.
In that respect, constitutional government was an inheritance, passed from one generation to the next. And as with many inheritances, it gave future generations not just blessings but obligations. Each succeeding generation would be responsible for stewarding its inheritance, and growing it, for the sake of generations yet to come. No one recognized this more clearly than Abraham Lincoln, not just in his presidency but even in his very first steps toward it.
In 1838, the 28-year-old Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. “As a subject for the remarks of the evening,” he began, “the perpetuation of our political institutions, is selected.” What followed was an account of the decades-old constitutional republic as an inheritance. His generation “found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings,” he observed. “We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them — they are a legacy bequeathed us.” And for that legacy, the young Lincoln added, we owe gratitude. The work of perpetuation, as he described it, bound together generations past, present, and future: “This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general.”
And for Lincoln, the task of gratitude required first and foremost the people’s own recommitment to a spirit of goodwill. In 1838, as antebellum pressures began to intensify around the country, he saw “something of ill-omen amongst us”: growing indicators that “wild and furious passions” were displacing a spirit of respect for constitutional institutions. And he warned that “this mobocratic spirit” threatened to eventually break down and destroy “the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours”: namely, “the attachment of the people” to their constitutional government.
The task at hand, therefore, was for Americans to restore their respect for the rule of law. (“Let it become the political religion of the nation,” he urged.) But this, again, was a means to greater ends: the preservation of the people’s attachment to their government, in gratitude for those who built it and for the sake of generations yet to come. (“Let every American,” he added, “every well wisher to his posterity,” commit himself to it.)
Lincoln’s Lyceum Address describes a second aspect of constitutional gratitude: perpetuating our constitutional institutions by, first and foremost, allowing ourselves to be constrained by them.
Gratitude and Reform
But Lincoln would highlight yet another aspect of constitutional gratitude in a later speech, in 1860 at New York’s Cooper Union. Arguing against Senator Stephen Douglas’s account of the Constitution’s original purposes, he accepted Douglas’s characterization of the Constitution’s 39 signatories as “fathers” (though with qualifications that hinted toward the point he made clear at Gettysburg: that “our fathers” were those who first declared America’s independence and announced principles that the Constitution would soon be written to embody.)
Speaking of those fathers, Lincoln rejected Douglas’s attempt to enlist the Founders on the anti-anti-slavery side of antebellum arguments. But in offering his own account of America’s “fathers,” Lincoln offered a crucial caveat. “Now, and here,” he explained, “let me guard a little against being misunderstood. I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience — to reject all progress — all improvement.”
For Lincoln, gratitude does not require unthinking fealty; rather, it required each generation’s good-faith commitment to improve the legacy they had been bequeathed — not rejecting constitutional institutions on a whim, but “upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even [our fathers’] great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand.”
Thus the next aspect of constitutional gratitude is twofold: to commit ourselves to reforming and improving that which we’ve been given — but only when we can say in good faith, and on reflection, that we have learned from experience how to reform and improve it.
Three years later, this aspect of constitutional gratitude found its greatest expression at Gettysburg. “Four score and seven years” after “our fathers brought forth . . . a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal,’” the course of human events had required Lincoln’s generation to save the constitutional republic by profoundly reforming it, first in war and then in law. This would be “a new birth of freedom” — an inheritance from earlier generations, renovated for future ones.
Of course, sometimes the need for reform is painfully acute, despite much of the country’s failure or refusal to recognize it. Never was this more true than on the question of slavery, and no one spoke more eloquently to this point than Frederick Douglass. Speaking on July 5, 1852, Douglass pointed to the absurdity of suggesting that enslaved black men and women could celebrate the Fourth of July in the same spirit as free whites. The men who declared independence and wrote the Constitution — “your fathers,” he said repeatedly — deserved respect for founding the republic. “They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue.” But, Douglass lamented, he could not “express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence,” given the sorrows, pain, and injustice that institutions of slavery inflicted upon black men and women.
Yet after cataloging the nation’s profound sins, Douglass ended on a note much different from what his audience, then and now, might naturally expect. Turning to the Constitution, Douglass, like Lincoln, refused to allow the present generation to wield it as a tool of oppression. To all Americans — whom he addressed as “fellow-citizens” — he demanded a vindication of the Constitution’s best principles, not its worst applications. He rose in defense of the Framers, for what they had created: “It is a slander upon their memory” to construe their constitutional legacy in favor of “the hateful thing,” slavery. Instead, he cast their legacy in its best light: “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Douglass, like Lincoln, argued that respect for our constitutional institutions required each generation’s commitment to save them from ruin. And Douglass 25 years later, at the unveiling of a statue of Lincoln — “the freedmen’s monument” in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park, said:
The sentiment that brings us here to-day is one of the noblest that can stir and thrill the human heart. . . . It is the sentiment of gratitude and appreciations, which often, in the presence of many who hear me, has filled yonder heights of Arlington with the eloquence of eulogy and the sublime enthusiasm of poetry and song; a sentiment which can never die while the Republic lives.
As Douglass had earlier called on Americans to give due respect to the Founding generation’s creation of the constitutional republic, so he now expressed gratitude to Lincoln and others who, in their own generation, saved it.
Gratitude and Statesmanship
In making this case, Douglass emphasized that Lincoln himself undertook the work of constitutional preservation not for the sake of momentary popularity, but for the sake of posterity. “Few great public men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation,” Douglass recalled. “Reproaches came thick and fast upon him from within and from without, and from opposite quarters.”
Yet the “honest and comprehensive statesman, clearly discerning the needs of his country, and earnestly endeavoring to do his whole duty, though covered and blistered with reproaches, may safely leave his course to the silent judgment of time,” and so to posterity.
Douglass’s account of Lincoln reminds us of one last aspect of constitutional gratitude. We are inspired to that gratitude by the statesmen who exemplify it themselves. It is possible for constitutional gratitude to persist among the people even when it is not found among their elected officials — as James Madison remarked, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” — but it would be risky to assume that we can do without such statesmanship for long.
And this takes us back to the beginning. George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789, like so many other aspects of his presidency, set a precedent. Even if they were spurred by a congressional resolution, Washington’s words went far beyond Congress’s, offering the newly constituted people an example of what to be grateful for, and how to express that gratitude.
Washington went on to further exemplify constitutional gratitude at the end of his presidency, in his 1796 farewell address. There he expressed thanks not just to those who created the Constitution, but also to the Americans now tasked with sustaining it. They had entrusted Washington with the first presidency, and his farewell address is replete with statements of gratitude to Americans, of love for America, and of a profound sense of that with which he had been entrusted.
The man who had devoted his life first to the revolution, and then to the Constitution, left office not suggesting that the people were indebted to him, but the opposite: He offered “deep acknowledgement of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country,” he wrote, “for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment.” The presidency was not a prize that he had earned, but an “important trust” that soon would be committed to his successor.
Washington would not be the last president to speak in such terms, nor should these themes be the exclusive province of presidents. Statesmen in Congress can offer such examples, too. In Federalist No. 57, James Madison writes that members of Congress would be motivated by more than just ambition and self-interest; he also counted duty and gratitude among “the chords by which [those members] will be bound to fidelity and sympathy with the great mass of the people.”
Some more than others, of course, and if the likes of Washington and Lincoln are rare in the White House then they are rarer still on Capitol Hill. But when members of Congress, like presidents, are able to define their office not just in terms of power but also in terms of gratitude both to their fellow countrymen and to their forefathers, they help to perpetuate the Constitution that creates their offices; and they offer an example for the people whose own constitutional gratitude is indispensable for this perpetuation.
This Thanksgiving, when the nation is battered by a pandemic and fractured by political strife, we can hope that statesmen will step forward to exemplify constitutional gratitude. But more important, we can rediscover the sources of our own gratitude, for those who wrote the Constitution and those who perpetuated it — not just for our own sake, but for the sake of posterity.
Yuval Levin is director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Adam J. White is a resident scholar.