Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the 2014 harvest festival.
Thanksgiving is a special holiday, at least in the modern world. Its roots are religious and the American nation is at least legally secular. His name speaks of thanks or gratitude, and gratitude is an ancient virtue. Indeed, Aristotle speaks highly of it. Even so, or maybe because of that, it’s very American. In his 1922 Thanksgiving address, President Coolidge called it “perhaps the most characteristic of our national observations.” He wasn’t wrong because, as Chesterton wrote, America is “a nation with the soul of a church” and Abraham Lincoln called us an “almost chosen people”.
In other words, the holiday reminds us of the special character of the American nation and the role of the president in it. Strictly speaking, to be American means to be an American citizen. When you call someone American, the first definition you usually have in mind is political. On the other hand, when you say someone is Chinese or Turkish, the first thought is an ethnic or racial identity. Still, there is an American culture. So it is very common to say that something is “very American”. Thanksgiving itself deserves that nickname. Is it a Constitutional Compliance? That’s an open question.
On this holiday, we see how the special character of the presidency complements our extraordinary nationality. Constitutionally, the president is just the American CEO. His job is “to see that the law is faithfully carried out,” and in his oath he swears to “carry out the office of President” and is committed to “upholding, protecting and defending the United States Constitution “. The oath says nothing about the American “nation”. Indeed, the word “nation” does not appear in the Constitution except in Article I, Section 8, when it comes to relations with “foreign nations” and the “law of nations”. Strictly speaking, the President’s job is to enforce the laws passed by Congress and to defend the “supreme law of the country”. Even so, the president is indeed the head of state and the leader of the American people. It is no surprise that over time the American president has acquired the insignia of a monarch – think of the entourage he travels with, the way he is treated at the State of the Union address, the Language we use to talk about the “White House” and its parts, like the “West Wing”. And a monarch is more than a CEO. He is the leader of the nation in the classic sense of the nation.
George Washington set the tone for office in many ways, no more than in his Thanksgiving Proclamation made in October 1789, seven months after his oath of office. Why such a proclamation at all? Where in Article I Section 8 (the section listing the powers that the people have delegated to the federal government) is the authority to proclaim a federal holiday? In 1791, James Madison criticized Alexander Hamilton’s claim that the US government had the authority to establish a national bank because nowhere in the Constitution did the people of the federal government grant the federal government the right to establish a bank or a company (an entity that had done this) traditionally viewed as a “person” in the eyes of the law). And fourteen years later the Louisiana purchase would tie President Jefferson in a knot, for nowhere did the people of the United States give the US government the right to acquire territory. But Madison lost the National Bank’s argument in 1791 and had changed his mind about its constitutionality in 1816. Meanwhile, Jefferson didn’t stop the Senate from ratifying the Louisiana purchase. In other words, he and Madison implicitly accepted that by the very nature of things there were some powers that belong to the government, and when the people created the U.S. government, they necessarily allowed it those powers without which no government could function.
The authority to proclaim Thanksgiving may seem trivial to us – mere words and an idle explanation. In fact, it is meaningful, because assuming such authority underscores how inherently a president is very much like a monarch – albeit an elected one. It also points us to the limits of secular nationalism.
Consider President Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. It begins with the universal “duty of all nations to recognize the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and to humbly ask for his protection and favor”. But then he stops like he knows that some may be asking why the president is involved. Washington continues: “While both Houses of Congress have asked me from their joint committee to recommend a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to the people of the United States to be observed, acknowledging with a grateful heart the many favors that have been signaled Almighty God, especially by giving them the peaceful opportunity to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. “Congress asked Washington to announce the day. An interesting request. Congress did not pass a law proclaiming a Thanksgiving Day. According to some constructions of the constitution, such an act could have passed into an institution of religion. Instead, they simply asked the president to “recommend” such compliance to the people. But if it’s not a law, where does authority come from? It has to be in the nature of things.
What is the power of a “recommendation” from the President? Actually a little. And that’s because the president is practically a national father figure. Those of us who think in theory may get upset that there is nothing in the Constitution to suggest such a role, and it is certainly true that there are many Americans who do not see it that way. It is true, however, that the President has always had such authority over a significant part of the country. Even those who protest against a particular president or his policies often react as an unhappy child. And so a “recommendation” from the President, even ceremonial, is simply the nature of the matter. (I am not referring to the modern practice of the president or his henchmen of “recommending” corporations or universities to use any particular practice. There is no implied “or else” of the president in this type of proclamation.) Some states tried without to operate a unified executive in the years after 1776. The experiment was a failure. Even Pennsylvania gave up efforts in the early 1790s. And once there is such an executive for the whole nation, even if we Americans refuse to admit it, he becomes “his electoral majesty.”
That is what is so important about the opening line of Washington’s proclamation. He speaks of the “duty of all nations”. Such a declaration implies that all nations are in some ways equal. No nation is or can be exceptional in this regard. A nation is inherently a being in a moral universe. In the middle of the Thanksgiving proclamation, Washington refers to the Declaration of Independence and states that Americans are grateful “for the peaceful and rational way in which we have been enabled to establish government constitutions for our security and happiness.” Americans should be grateful for the American experiment in showing that men are capable of creating governments based on “reflection and choice,” as the first federalist put it. Even nations with constituted governments that delegate powers of the people cannot change the nature of things. And that means that national morality is a fundamental concern. In beginning the defense of the constitutions, John Adams would join the two: “The people of America now have the best opportunity and the greatest confidence in their hands that Providence has ever committed itself to such a small number since the transgression of the first couple. If they betray their trust, their guilt deserves even greater punishment than other nations and heaven’s indignation. “
As Washington noted in its first inaugural address, nations and individuals alike are judged by a common standard. Since the universe is moral, nations that reek of injustice will almost always suffer (the ways of the Almighty are mysterious), just as individuals who do evil will be punished “since there is no more thorough truth than that in the economy gives and of course an indissoluble link between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of honest and magnanimous politics and the solid rewards of public prosperity and happiness; . . . Heaven’s auspicious smile can never be expected from a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and justice that Heaven itself has determined. “Quoting the gospel, President Lincoln said almost the same thing:” Woe to the world for crime; for there must be crimes, but woe to the man who made the crime. “In other words, just as a national government has certain powers by the very nature of things, so too is it that nations must naturally behave in certain ways if they are to thrive and prosper. In this case, it is appropriate that we, the American people, pause periodically to thank the being who made us who, in Washington’s words, “will grant all of humanity such temporal prosperity as He alone knows To be the best. “Happy Thanksgiving.