What is the secret ingredient to building a safe, prosperous, and free republic? Separation of powers? Check. Checks and balances? Check. The right balance of federalism? Check. The proper definition of fundamental rights? Check.
Our Founders were all ready to kick off the new republic with much hope (and concern). Yet there was one element missing. During the worst crisis moment of the Constitutional Convention in the humid Philadelphia summer of 1787, when negotiations collapsed over the crafting of Article I of the Constitution, the sagacious and elderly Benjamin Franklin reminded his younger colleagues of the secret ingredient to success that had sustained the nascent republic during the previous 11 years since 1776:
I will suggest, Mr. President, that propriety of nominating and appointing, before we separate, a chaplain to this Convention, whose duty it shall be uniformly to assemble with us, and introduce the business of each day by an address to the Creator of the universe, and the Governor of all nations, beseeching Him to preside in our council, enlighten our minds with a portion of heavenly wisdom, influence our hearts with a love of truth and justice, and crown our labors with complete and abundant success!
There is no foundation to this republic without acknowledgment of God as the source of its blessing
God is not only mentioned in our Declaration of Independence but identified as the source of our “self-evident” inalienable rights. As such, it was quite obvious to our Founders that he is the source of all blessings to the nation that was founded on those self-evident truths. Our nation has been the most successful one in modern history because it was led by people who understood that its success was inextricably linked to beseeching God for his blessings and thanking him when blessings are given.
This point is punctuated by the actual words spoken by Franklin on that fateful Thursday before July 4, 1787, as recorded in Madison’s notes:
In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
Indeed, 10 years earlier, Samuel Adams drafted a Thanksgiving Proclamation on behalf of the Continental Congress. On December 17, 1777, the colonists marked a day of thanksgiving “to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of.”
Two years after the Constitutional Convention, when George Washington had become president and the fledgling Congress was beginning to create our foundational laws, they turned to God in what would become an annual fall Thanksgiving modeled after the Judeo-rooted biblical holiday of Tabernacle celebrating the fall harvest. On September 25, 1789, the House passed a resolution requesting President George Washington to set aside a “day of public humiliation and prayer,” which was 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.”
The biblical roots of Thanksgiving
This day of prayer and thanksgiving to God that Congress called for on September 25, in the words of the great Roger Sherman, was to replicate through the celebration of the Constitution “the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the Temple,” a “precedent in holy writ” he thought “worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion” (Annals of Congress, 1st Cong., 1st sess., 950).
President Washington issued the proclamation on October 3, to be observed on November 26 that same year. October 3 of that year was actually just one day before the Jewish holiday of Tabernacle, which means its biblical origin was very likely on his mind. Some historians believe the original feast of the Pilgrims in 1621 upon which the holiday was modeled also occurred in early October. It would be reasonable to conclude that the Pilgrims, who referred to their new civilization as “little Israel,” had Biblical Tabernacle in mind.
What was the nature of this public day of prayer? To beseech God “to pardon our national and other transgressions” and “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.” The day was grounded in the self-evident and ubiquitous notion of the time that “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.”
An enduring American tradition that best characterizes us as a people
The holiday was eventually codified as a regular observance on Thursday at the end of November by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, at the urging of Sarah Josepha Hale. Following in the tradition of Washington, he issued the proclamation on October 3 to be observed on November 26. Hale, “the Godmother of Thanksgiving,” spoke of a fixed date at the end of November because, among other reasons, “harvests of all kinds are gathered in” and the blessings of God are most evident.
Already in 1923, Calvin Coolidge referred to it as a “wise custom” of Americans, from “their earliest days” by “acknowledging each year the bounty with which divine Providence has favored them.” This is why he believed that Thanksgiving Day was “not only one of the oldest but one of the most characteristic observances of our country.”
Why does it capture the essence of our national character more than any other day? As Coolidge wrote in his 1923 proclamation, “On that day, in home and church, in family and in public gatherings, the whole nation has for generations paid the tribute due from grateful hearts for blessings bestowed.” He added the following year that Thanksgiving “has the sanction of antiquity and the approbation of our religious convictions.” “In acknowledging the receipt of divine favor, in contemplating the blessings which have been bestowed upon us, we shall reveal the spiritual strength of the nation.”
Courts use our own history against us and banish God from our lives
September 25, 1789, the day Congress called for Washington’s proclamation, was also the day that Congress passed the Bill of Rights with a joint resolution between the House and Senate, sending it to the states for ratification. So on the very same day that our legislators ordered such a religious prayer of thanksgiving, they passed the First Amendment, which includes the Establishment Clause directing the national government not to establish a religion. Anyone who lived during the time of our Founding clearly understood that this meant just one thing – that government wouldn’t coerce anyone to violate their conscience. As James Madison explained during the initial floor debate on August 20, 1789, Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.
Yet we now have unelected judges erasing our religious Founding. They use an amendment designed to prevent coercion against conscience to eliminate voluntary recognition of God and religion by our government. Even worse, we have judges establishing paganism as the official religion to downright coerce those who believe in the Bible to violate their conscience with their private property.
Here’s another fun fact of 1789: Just four days prior to President Washington’s October thanksgiving proclamation and four days after both passage of the Bill of Rights and the resolution calling for a day of prayer, the House passed the final version of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created the entire structure and jurisdiction of the federal judiciary.
No less a figure than John Marshall himself said (Durousseau v. United States, 1810) that implicit in this bill was the exercising of Article III, Section 2, which grants the judiciary only the jurisdiction provided to it by Congress and that this bill placed a “negative on the exercise of such appellate power as is not comprehended within it.”
So let’s get this straight: In the same week that Congress granted the judiciary its jurisdiction, it also passed the Bill of Rights — including the Establishment Clause — and called for a national day of prayer. Now we are told that this same judiciary can remake our culture and borders in every way imaginable by using the Bill of Rights to uproot prayer from our governmental consciousness. It’s gotten so bad that we now have judges saying there’s no religious liberty right to be left alone with your property and conscience, but there is a First Amendment right to immigrate against the consent of an established nation and to perform FGM on someone’s daughter as a “religious” tradition. This is the vile legacy of the disgraceful legal profession that is refuted by the immutable facts of our Founding era, history, and traditions.
We can only turn to God and nowhere else
Many days, it appears that our political problems are insurmountable. Every aspect of our system of governance, sovereignty, culture, history, and traditions has been flipped upside down, made into an Orwellian carcass of the original republic. Nonetheless, although we are so disappointed in what has become of our republic, we must still be thankful that we at least have the freedoms to debate these issues and raise our concerns without being prosecuted for hate speech as in other “western” countries (at least not yet).
Indeed, even in our worst state of affairs, we are still head and shoulders above the rest of the world. As George Washington observed in his 1795 Thanksgiving Proclamation, “When we review the calamities which afflict so many other nations, the present condition of the United States affords much matter of consolation and satisfaction.”
We must use this continued blessing to promote the truth, but in doing so and strategizing our next moves, we must never forget the admonition of Franklin to his colleagues – that a republic cannot be restored without the aid of “the God who governs the affairs of men.”
Despite the sad spiritual and political state of affairs, we must thank God for all the bounty he has given us, blessing this country with unprecedented abundance and wealth. But as Calvin Coolidge noted in his 1925 Thanksgiving Proclamation, not everything is about material things. We must have a spiritual revival. “As we have grown and prospered in material things, so also should we progress in moral and spiritual things,” warned Coolidge. Imagine Coolidge having a vision of today’s Thanksgiving being usurped by the unbridled hedonism and often violence of “Black Friday.”
The only way to maintain our material blessings, restore our political system, and achieve growth in spirituality is by beseeching the Lord of Abraham for guidance in the coming year and thanking him for his existing abundance so that we may merit his blessings. As Coolidge said in 1923, “We have been a most blessed people. We ought to be a most thankful people.”
“Give thanks unto the LORD for He is good, for his kindness endures forever.” —Psalm 136
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.