Thanksgiving is alike a holy day and a patriotic day. It reflects, in part, the genius of the American Founding. Only in America can all citizens, of all religious persuasions, celebrate equally such a holiday. Only in a regime of religious liberty can members of different religions unite together as equal citizens. Such a thing would have been unimaginable in 17th or 18th century Europe. It remains, if not unimaginable, at least unforeseeable in many parts of the world today, where religion is used as an excuse for some to tyrannize others.
The blessings that God bestowed on our nation — foremost the gift of religious liberty itself, which allows men to worship God freely according to the dictates of their own conscience — are not merely things of the past. They remain the wellsprings of American power and greatness today. For that we should all give thanks.
George Washington understood well how rare and wonderful are the blessings of freedom. He was the first to enshrine Thanksgiving as a national holiday. His official proclamation continues to remind us today of the source of all that we enjoy as American citizens:
City of New York, October 3, 1789
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. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.