America is the only nation on earth founded upon a set of democratic ideals. All other nations started on dynastic, tribal, ethnic or religious grounds. Thus, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. In giving thanks for our nation’s blessings, we have always given thanks for our democratic values as well as our security and economic well-being.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, perhaps because I am a naturalized American citizen, the son of political refugees. So, it is distressing to see that polarization has discouraged meaningful conversation around the Thanksgiving table. Even among family and friends, we have come to shy away from serious discussion. Some of us stay away from the dinner table altogether. Yet polls confirm that, regardless of political leanings, most of us are deeply worried about our nation’s future. That makes it all the more urgent to use the occasion to ponder our commitment to our nation’s values.
As with other societies, our thanksgiving began as a harvest festival. In fall 1621 the Pilgrims who had landed at Plymouth Bay gave thanks for their first harvest after surviving their first winter. First Americans joined them in celebration.
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In October 1789, one year after ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Congress requested and President Washington issued a proclamation recommending that all Americans give thanks to God for the government established to ensure their safety and happiness; to beseech God for strength to properly perform their civic duties so that the national government remains a blessing to all; not neglecting to ask God to bless all nations with good government, peace, and harmony. In 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a federal holiday in order to celebrate the very survival of the Union.
The notion of a civic or secular holy day might seem a bit incongruous, if not a contradiction in terms. Washington and Lincoln came out of the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment, which held that God created the universe; established certain self-evident truths, among them that all people are created equal; endowed us with certain fundamental rights and liberties; and then left us to work out the implementation. To be sure, we haven’t always lived up to our side of the bargain; but those enlightened ideals are the foundation of the American experiment.
Most Americans believe that commitment to democratic ideals has been weakening. In a 2017 survey conducted for the bipartisan Democracy Project, sixty eight percent of respondents expressed the opinion that our democracy is “weak” and “getting weaker”; fifty percent that the U .S. is in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country.” In a 2018 survey, sixty percent of all respondents, but only 39 percent of young adults, rated democracy as “absolutely important.”
In view of these trends and broad public concern, our State Board of Education, Superintendent Jillian Balow, and others have been considering ways to make civic education a bigger part of the public school curriculum. It is true that, before receiving a high school diploma, or an associates or baccalaureate degree from a publicly funded school, every Wyoming student must pass an examination on the principles of the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions. That is useful knowledge, but that is not learning the skills for practicing responsible citizenship. As a result, a number of individual teachers, often with support from their administrators, are finding opportunities for students to engage first hand within their communities.
Among the voluntary organizations that have popped up in support of democratic values and civic engagement is “We the Purple, the Purple Project for Democracy.” Purple is a nonpartisan coalition and campaign for “mindful patriotism.” To promote holiday conversation on what makes America exceptional, Purple has developed a “Thanksgiving Conversation Kit,” especially useful for drawing the attention of young people. The kit includes a printable, off-loadable, no-cost “Can of Democracy” label, which can be wrapped around a soup can. The idea is to pass the can around the Thanksgiving table. The holder has 60 seconds to reflect on what democracy means, before passing the can to the next person. No better way to celebrate the true spirit of Thanksgiving.
John F. Freeman lives in Laramie. He is trained in history. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.