As with many presidential customs, it all started with George Washington. He was the first to issue an official proclamation for a national day of thanks. Although the tradition was intermittent in the early years of the Republic, it is fitting that Abraham Lincoln, the only president revered more than Washington, revived the practice.
Some proclamations are little more than affirmations of faith in God and democracy. Others include references to the concerns of the times and allow the chief executive to provide what we now would call his own spin.
Theodore Roosevelt, one of a half dozen born and/or bred New Yorkers in the White House, was characteristically exuberant in his Thanksgiving proclamation of 1908. The United States had become “the mightiest republic which the world has ever seen,” he thundered, and all had prospered as a result. “Nowhere else in the world is the average of individual comfort and material well-being as high as in our fortunate land.”
But fortune is not enough, he warned. “That life is wasted, and worse than wasted, which is spent in piling, heap upon heap, those things which minister merely to the pleasure of the body and to the power that rests only on wealth. ... The things of the body are good; the things of the intellect better; the best of all are the things of the soul; for, in the nation as in the individual, in the long run it is character that counts.”
His cousin from the Hyde Park branch of the family, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presided over a different nation in a very different time. And in 1933, in his first Thanksgiving proclamation after taking office in the depths of the Depression, he echoed some similar sentiments for a different purpose and from a different perspective.
He, too, warned about the false god of acquisitiveness: “May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.”
He called upon Americans to help each other in a time when the need for that was self-evident:
“May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; 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.”
And in 1941, with the economy recovering but the threat of war ever present, FDR provided a reminder that stands the test of time.
“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.”