We can rediscover the sources of our own gratitude, for those who wrote the Constitution and those who perpetuated it — not just for our own sake, but for the sake of posterity.
Each Thanksgiving calls to mind early Thanksgivings — at Plymouth in 1621, of course, but perhaps also in the nation’s capital in 1789. In October of that year, just months into the nation’s new constitutional government, President Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation. Its words of gratitude to “the beneficent Author of all the good” in our world, “for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us,” would ring familiar around American tables today, even in the most difficult of years.
Washington’s proclamation became a landmark, quoted to this day; but it was preceded by a brief debate in Congress that, though less famous, would also ring familiar today, albeit for rather less happy reasons.
On September 25, 1789, New Jersey representative Elias Boudinot introduced a resolution asking the president to announce a day of national thanksgiving, and his proposal was immediately criticized. Among the critics was Representative Thomas Tucker, of South Carolina, who argued that any words of gratitude for our new Constitution would be premature.
“Why,” Tucker asked, “should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do? They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness. We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced.”
Tucker’s criticism failed to stop the House from approving Boudinot’s resolution, and the Senate soon passed it too, prompting the president’s proclamation a few days later. Yet Tucker’s question persists, in his time and in ours: Why should we be grateful for a Constitution that was imperfect in its creation; abided the profound evils of slavery and Jim Crow for nearly two centuries more; and fails to prevent the increasingly fractious politics of our own day?
Washington saw a reason. Among the many things for which his proclamation offers gratitude is this: “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.” That is, the mere fact that the newly independent American people had gathered in their capitals and towns, to write and ratify new constitutions, was an immense achievement; the fact that they eventually wrote and ratified a new constitution for the United States, an unprecedented document for a contested form of federal republic, was astounding.
Two years earlier, when the Constitution was being debated, the challenge of achieving such a high-minded goal was palpable. Alexander Hamilton emphasized it in the opening lines of The Federalist. “It has been frequently remarked,” he wrote, “that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
“If there be any truth in the remark,” Hamilton continued, then “the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
These high stakes “will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event,” he continued. “Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.” But, he conceded, “This is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”
Washington’s proclamation recognizes that the Founding generation had in fact met that challenge, and that it deserved the respect of a grateful nation. Indeed, by ascribing this accomplishment not merely to his era’s statesmen and citizens, but to “the providence of Almighty God,” Washington suggested that the creation of the Constitution required a near superhuman degree of public spiritedness on the part of the people who wrote the Constitution in Philadelphia and ratified it in the 13 states. Or to borrow Hamilton’s line, if failure would have entailed “the general misfortune” of all mankind, then success brought great fortune to it.
Gratitude and Posterity
The Constitution’s opening lines offer a telling phrase on this point. In its famous “We the People” preamble, where the Constitution’s authors announced their intent to “form a more perfect Union” and achieve other ends, the authors conclude with their desire to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This language reminds us that the Constitution was, and was intended to be, a labor of one generation on behalf of generations to come.
Some of the Founders expressed this sentiment elsewhere, of course. “I must study Politicks and War,” John Adams wrote to Abigail in 1780, “that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy,” and that their children, in turn, would enjoy “a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Such things are, after all, among the blessings of liberty secured by the Founding. But these blessings were being secured not just for future Adamses, but for America — and if not all Americans at first, then for more and more with each passing generation.
In that respect, constitutional government was an inheritance, passed from one generation to the next. And as with many inheritances, it gave future generations not just blessings but obligations. Each succeeding generation would be responsible for stewarding its inheritance, and growing it, for the sake of generations yet to come. No one recognized this more clearly than Abraham Lincoln, not just in his presidency but even in his very first steps toward it.
In 1838, the 28-year-old Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. “As a subject for the remarks of the evening,” he began, “the perpetuation of our political institutions, is selected.” What followed was an account of the decades-old constitutional republic as an inheritance. His generation “found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings,” he observed. “We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them — they are a legacy bequeathed us.” And for that legacy, the young Lincoln added, we owe gratitude. The work of perpetuation, as he described it, bound together generations past, present, and future: “This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general.”
And for Lincoln, the task of gratitude required first and foremost the people’s own recommitment to a spirit of goodwill. In 1838, as antebellum pressures began to intensify around the country, he saw “something of ill-omen amongst us”: growing indicators that “wild and furious passions” were displacing a spirit of respect for constitutional institutions. And he warned that “this mobocratic spirit” threatened to eventually break down and destroy “the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours”: namely, “the attachment of the people” to their constitutional government.
→ This Thanksgiving, let’s practice constitutional gratitude (National Review)