George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1789

Portrait of George Washington rendered in a contemporary and celebratory manner

Below I print verbatim America’s first president’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. It is worth reading in view of the challenges that our nation is currently facing. Since this is my blog, I have highlighted my favorite parts. Enjoy and give thanks!

By the President of the United States of America,

                                    a Proclamation.

            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 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 which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, 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 hath 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–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

             Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

                                                Go: Washington

Statue of George Washington defaced - BLM sprayed across the base
July 2020 – Defaced statue of George Washington in New Orleans. “BLM” was sprayed across the statue’s base. – 4WWL-TV

George Washington and slavery
It is common in today’s political climate to denigrate George Washington along with several other American founders because they were slaveholders. Some assert that the founding documents are fundamentally flawed because of this fact. They insist that phrases such as the above “blessing to all the people,” and Jefferson’s “all men are created equal,” were not intended to include women and people of color. While some criticisms of several important American founders are justified, it does not follow that the founding documents are therefore innately and irreparably racist and sexist. What these men wrote laid the groundwork for the eventual abolition of slavery and equal rights for women.

America did in fact fight a war to end slavery within one generation of its founding. The Civil War was fought on principle, at great cost to the nation. The abolitionist movement was almost entirely due to the religious fervor and moral stance of white Christians, along with some Black abolitionists who had escaped bondage. Meanwhile, white enlightenment secularists were missing in action, at best, regarding the issue of slavery.

If it seems duplicitous that some of the key American founders who laid the constitutional groundwork to abolish slavery and inequality continued to hold slaves, that’s because it was duplicitous. The world was coming to grips with the evils of slavery even as America was being born. After the American revolution, in 1777 Vermont became the first sovereign American state to abolish the slave trade. The transatlantic slave trade reached its peak in the 1780s. British abolitionist William Wilberforce was born in 1759.

There is much evidence that slavery gave rise to racism (a belief in the racial inferiority of blacks), and not the reverse. “New world” race relations in the early 1600s generally saw blacks and whites on equal footing. Unfortunately, over the next couple of centuries, bad science, bad theology, and bad public policy increasingly fostered a white supremacist subculture, eventually enshrining slavery as an institution and condoning black slaves as property. By the time America’s independence was won, opinion on slavery was divided and hotly debated.

The most prominent slaveholder founders – namely Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – all made anti-slavery statements even as they held slaves. Washington’s will stipulated that his slaves be freed upon his wife’s death, (which didn’t fully happen). Ben Franklin freed his few slaves and later became president of the Pennsylvanian Abolition Society. Some founders, such as America’s second president John Adams, and the first Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Jay, were anti-slavery from the start. There was never a universally pro-slavery America. America was not “built on slavery.”

Nonetheless, one may rightfully ask how such duplicity could exist in some freedom-minded founders when the full humanity of black individuals was so obvious. My answer is that all human beings are broken, and we are all prone to find ways to justify unjust, even violent, practices to preserve our own interests at the expense of others.

To take a modern example, we have known for over a couple of centuries that a new human life begins at conception. Modern biological science is clear and indisputable on this. Yet, here we are in the 21st century fighting a cold civil war over abortion on demand – a supposed right for “people with uteri.” We live and work, side by side, with people who disagree on this issue. We currently have elected lawmakers fighting to keep late term abortion legal, and others seeking to abolish it altogether. There are otherwise decent people on both sides of the issue.

Saying this in no way minimizes the evil of slavery or justifies the early American slaveholders. The comparison between legal abortion and slavery simply demonstrates how a practice that is seen as an obvious and non-negotiable personal right by one side can be seen as an obviously barbaric and reprehensible practice by the other, even in our “enlightened” era.

If you object to this comparison, and would like to make the case that comparing legal slavery to legal abortion is comparing apples to oranges, I would like to hear your argument in the comment section.

In closing, and in view of our fractured, divided, often hysterical and overly politicized cultural atmosphere, I leave you with one more quote. This one is also from our wise-but-imperfect first president, George Washington, from his farewell address. It is brilliant in its prophetic nature to us today:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism….In governments purely elective, [a spirit of party is] not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose; and there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

Amen to that, and a happy thanksgiving to you and your loved ones!

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4 comments on “George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1789

  1. markcole says:

    I agree that the Jefferson and Washington would both agree that “All men are created equal” would mean *all* people, and they both said that they were against slavery, even though they had slaves. They were great men in their time. We live in a different time, and I just wish that we would believe that *all* people means everyone now as well. We still don’t all have equal rights (like the unborn and women and black men and homosexuals). We need to live up to the ideals of the 60s (the 1860s) where we had a hot war to agree that all people are created in God’s Image and are therefore equal under the law. I agree with this thoughtful and thankful blog.

    • Thank you, Mark. I am hoping it will not take a hot war this time, but I also don’t see how our super diverse country can find a common basis for believing that all human beings have innate value, and are thus equal under the law. Of course, I’m with you on the image of God principle. I love the notion that rights are endowed by our Creator. I think it’s brilliant. But I don’t see an evolutionary basis for believing any of that. I still hope that the US can unite around the US Constitution at least, but there are a lot of factors stacked against that happening, sadly.

      I hope you guys have a great holiday! Thanks for taking time to comment!

  2. Bruce says:

    “a practice that is seen as an obvious and non-negotiable personal right by one side can be seen as an obviously barbaric and reprehensible practice by the other, even in our “enlightened” era” – Does this statement apply to capital punishment as well?

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for the question, Bruce.

      The “inconsistency” that pro-lifers generally support capital punishment is frequently mentioned in the “abortion wars,” but I don’t see much of a comparison there. Whether or not one agrees with the practice, capital punishment is meant to be part of the legal justice system, whereas abortion is a private, personal decision. Differences in principle include:

      > The death penalty is assigned after due process in a court of law in a criminal trial. The recipient is not innocent (if the process is carried out justly). In the case of abortion the fetus is always innocent of wrongdoing.

      > The defendant in a criminal trial has a voice and legal representation, whereas a fetus has no voice or right to representation.

      > Modern capital punishment is designed to be as humane and painless possible, whereas in an elective abortion there is no concern whatsoever for the fetus, which can feel pain at sometime between 20 – 30 weeks of development. No anesthesia is administered for methods that may include, dismemberment, skull crushing, or burning of the skin with a saline solution on the live human fetus.

      > Whether or not one agrees with the practice, capital punishment represents an attempt to uphold the value and dignity of human life by requiring justice for the taking of a human life, whereas abortion denies the value and dignity of human fetal life

      > Capital punishment does not deny the full humanity of the defendant; it strips him of his rights due to his capital offense. By contrast elective abortion denies the humanity of the human fetus, even though the full humanity of the fetus is scientifically well established.

      > Capital punishment is arguably a legitimate part of the legal justice system – a punishment that fits a capital crime. By contrast, elective abortion is not a legitimate medical procedure. Pregnancy is a natural part of the human reproductive process. It is not a disease, nor is a fetus a tumor or a parasite.

      The comparison to slavery and abortion seems legit to me because the reasoning is similar, (though not identical). Slave owners considered slaves their “property.” Similarly, legal abortion advocates speak of “my body,” which presumably includes the developing fetus, in their minds. By contrast, no one is claiming that capital offenders are the property of the state. The point I’m making in the above post is that otherwise decent and well-meaning people often support reprehensible practices for reasons of self-interest. This is as true for us today as it was for several of America’s founders.

      I should also mention that, though I guess I support capital punishment in principle, I do not support it in practice, as public policy. Because I don’t believe that it can be carried out justly due to human error and bias. My understanding is that it is an established fact that there are and have been a significant number of people on death row who are either innocent, or else are legally undeserving of the death penalty. Furthermore, these numbers disproportionately include black men, which is especially troubling given America’s racial history.

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