When George Washington issued his first Thanksgiving proclamation — on October 3, 1789, here in New York City — he noted that Congress had requested that he recommend to the people "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God." He set aside Thursday, November 26, 1789, "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." For Thanksgiving in 1795, Washington asserted that it is "our duty as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God and to implore Him to continue and confirm the blessings we experience."
John Adams issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in March 1798 that explained itself by saying, "As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety without which social happiness can not exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed."
Thomas Jefferson — an architect of the idea of the separation of church and state — did not issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. But the practice resumed when the author of the Constitution, James Madison, entered the White House and set aside January 12, 1815, as "a day on which all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering at the same time in their respective religious assemblies their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance."
Lincoln issued four Thanksgiving proclamations. In 1862 and 1863, the wartime president made reference to a divine role in Union military victories. "It has pleased Almighty God to vouchsafe signal victories to the land and naval forces engaged in suppressing an internal rebellion," the 1862 proclamation began. In 1863, Lincoln wrote that the bounties of America were so extraordinary "that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God." In 1864, he set apart the last Thursday in November "as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe."
In 1869, President Grant issued a proclamation recommending that Thursday, November 18, "be observed as a day of thanksgiving and of praise and of prayer to almighty God, the creator and ruler of the universe; and I do further recommend to all the people of the United States to assemble on that day in their accustomed places of public worship and to unite in the homage and praise due to the bountiful Father of All Mercies and in fervent prayer for the continuance of the manifold blessings he has vouchsafed to us as a people."
President Theodore Roosevelt brought to his Thanksgiving proclamations some of the progressive spirit he brought to his presidency. "We can best prove our thankfulness to the Almighty by the way in which on this earth and at this time each of us does his duty to his fellow-men," the Rough Rider wrote, recommending that on Thursday, November 28, "throughout the land the people cease from their wonted occupations, and at their several homes and places of worship reverently thank the giver of all good for the countless blessings of our national life."
Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed a Thanksgiving to be observed on Thursday, November 30, 1933. "May we on that day in our churches and in our homes give humble thanks for the blessings bestowed upon us during the year past by Almighty God," he wrote, asking Americans to be grateful "for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind."Like Lincoln, FDR recognized God as an ally of American soldiers in wartime. "God's help to us had been great in this year of march toward worldwide liberty," Roosevelt wrote in his 1943 proclamation. A year later he suggested "a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas."
President Truman was, in 1950, the first president to make explicit reference in a Thanksgiving proclamation to Jews, writing: "I call upon every citizen to offer thanks to God for His gracious guidance and help. Again I ask all my countrymen to appeal to the Most High, that the God of our Fathers who has blessed this land beyond all others will in His infinite mercy grant to all nations that peace which the world cannot give. I entreat them, in church, chapel, and synagogue, in their homes and in the busy walks of life, every day and everywhere, to pray for peace."
President Eisenhower added a nod to freedom of conscience, a freedom of which the founders were well aware."We are grateful that our beloved country, settled by those forebears in their quest for religious freedom, remains free and strong, and that each of us can worship God in his own way, according to the dictates of his conscience," Eisenhower wrote. President Kennedy began his first Thanksgiving proclamation by quoting the psalmist: "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord." He went on to ask "the head of each family to recount to his children" that America was born "in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through man's efforts persevere and come to fruition with the blessing of God."
Richard Nixon's Thanksgiving proclamation in 1972 was probably the first that mentioned Jesus. "From Moses at the Red Sea to Jesus preparing to feed the multitudes, the Scriptures summon us to words and deeds of gratitude, even before divine blessings are fully perceived," he wrote. President Ford's 1975 proclamation, by contrast, replaced reference to thanking God or the Almighty with a more vague reference to "our belief in a dynamic spirit that will continue to nurture and guide us."
"Almighty God" returned in 1977 for President Carter's first Thanksgiving proclamation, disappeared in 1978, but made it back in 1979 and 1980. President Reagan, as he often did, displayed a deeper knowledge of the issues, writing, in his first Thanksgiving proclamation, "Let us recommit ourselves to that devotion to God and family that has played such an important role in making this a great Nation, and which will be needed as a source of strength if we are to remain a great people." In 1983 he made reference to "separate institutions of church and state," while in 1985 and 1986 he said that the Thanksgiving custom derives from "our Judeo-Christian heritage."
President Clinton in 1993 described the "true spirit of Thanksgiving" as "acknowledging God's graciousness, and in response, reaching out in service to others." In his 1996 proclamation, Mr. Clinton referred to "the genius of our founders in daring to build the world's first constitutional democracy on the foundation of trust and thanks to God." President Bush, in his proclamation in 2004, said, "On this Thanksgiving Day, we thank God for his blessings and ask Him to continue to guide and watch over our Nation." And this year, in his Thanksgiving proclamation, the president said, "may God continue to bless America."
In so doing, Mr. Bush was not making a radical departure from the practices of his predecessors. Rather, he was keeping a bipartisan tradition that has now endured for centuries with harm neither to believer nor to atheist. It is a tradition that reminds us that the founders of America conducted their labors in the light of Sinai. Which in itself is something for which to give thanks.