George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789, like so many other aspects of his presidency, set a precedent. Even if they were spurred by a congressional resolution, Washington’s words went far beyond Congress’s, offering the newly constituted people an example of what to be grateful for, and how to express that gratitude.
Washington went on to further exemplify constitutional gratitude at the end of his presidency, in his 1796 farewell address. There he expressed thanks not just to those who created the Constitution, but also to the Americans now tasked with sustaining it. They had entrusted Washington with the first presidency, and his farewell address is replete with statements of gratitude to Americans, of love for America, and of a profound sense of that with which he had been entrusted.
The man who had devoted his life first to the revolution, and then to the Constitution, left office not suggesting that the people were indebted to him, but the opposite: He offered “deep acknowledgement of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country,” he wrote, “for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment.” The presidency was not a prize that he had earned, but an “important trust” that soon would be committed to his successor.
Washington would not be the last president to speak in such terms, nor should these themes be the exclusive province of presidents. Statesmen in Congress can offer such examples, too. In Federalist No. 57, James Madison writes that members of Congress would be motivated by more than just ambition and self-interest; he also counted duty and gratitude among “the chords by which [those members] will be bound to fidelity and sympathy with the great mass of the people.”
Some more than others, of course, and if the likes of Washington and Lincoln are rare in the White House then they are rarer still on Capitol Hill. But when members of Congress, like presidents, are able to define their office not just in terms of power but also in terms of gratitude both to their fellow countrymen and to their forefathers, they help to perpetuate the Constitution that creates their offices; and they offer an example for the people whose own constitutional gratitude is indispensable for this perpetuation.
This Thanksgiving, when the nation is battered by a pandemic and fractured by political strife, we can hope that statesmen will step forward to exemplify constitutional gratitude. But more important, 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.