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First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving 1789

It should not be thought that the blessing of religious liberty indicates any diminishment in obligation to the Author of that blessing. Freedom of religion does not mean that our rights are anything other than the gift of God. Understanding the need to remind Americans of the divine source of their rights and freedom, George Washington became the first president to set aside a national day of worship.

He wrote in his official 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."

Thus begins the great American festival, known as Thanksgiving. It is alike a holy day, and a patriotic day. The genius of the American Founding is here demonstrated: Only in America could all citizens, of all religious persuasions, celebrate equally a day that is holy and patriotic. Only in a regime of religious liberty could members of different religions unite together as equal citizens. Such a thing would have been unimaginable, for example, in 17th or 18th century Europe.

George Washington understood well the significance of this achievement. By enshrining it in a national holiday, Washington continues to remind us today of the source of all that we enjoy as American citizens.