Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation and the Nature of American Government
In October 1789, President George Washington issued a thanksgiving proclamation “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….” This proclamation was thus not merely a self-congratulation whereby the President and others applauded themselves for creating a new government provided by our Constitution. At that point we were transitioning from the Articles of Confederation which had neither three distinct branches of government nor the idea of federalism embodied in its organization. Would the new Constitution work? Would the misgivings of some leaders prove to be legitimate? In answer to these questions the proclamation expressed its reliance on the providence of Almighty God, not on a self-conscious self-confidence of those who created the Constitution. Despite the learning and brilliance of many of the Constitution’s promoters (think particularly of the vision and skills of James Madison, the key figure in its writing), Washington determined to put the success of the venture in the hands of Almighty God. He understood that true thankfulness and radical humility go hand in hand.
But Washington did not stop there. In an almost ecstatic frame of mind, he goes on to speak of God as a “great and glorious Being” and “Author of all that is good.” Are these really phrases to induce a type of radical self-hypnosis? Are these words that, as the Marxists might claim, simply manipulative phrases to hypnotize the people into accepting exploitation by a powerful class? Were these phrases stunning verbal drugs that were and are “the opiate of the people”?
He then goes on not to congratulate those who created or promoted this Constitution, but to admit the sinfulness of the men who have presented it and voted it into existence. He inserts a plea that our transgressions be pardoned, acknowledging thereby that there must be errors in the document which come from the limitations and biases of those involved with creating it and offering it to the several states.
Lastly, he emphasizes the fourfold goal of our Constitution. It will (1) promote knowledge, (2) promote “true religion and virtue,” (3) increase science, and (4) “enhance… temporal prosperity.” Thus, the goal was not to promote Christianity per se, but that virtue under a Christian umbrella of beliefs of a variety of sects and denominations would promote the progress in science and prosperity that the Constitutional Convention wanted to expand under the new rules of governance.
Washington’s statement exposes the farce of thinking that a hard line between separation of church and state was envisioned by our Founders, even those with a disdain for miracles related in the Bible and other theological doctrines like heaven and hell, the Trinity, or the necessity of baptism. "Separation" as in "separation of church and state" merely means that no specific Christian religion will be established and deemed as official, and thus will not be supported by taxation. It does not mean that there is a hard and fast line between progress in science or prosperity and belief in holy living before a holy God, biblical moral uprightness, or the divinity of Christ.
In this sense, individual conscience was to be recognized. This liberty of conscience was to be Christian, and despite that overall identity would not lead to a partisan nation despising of other belief systems. People with other, non-spiritual commitments would be welcome, but their presence would not deny the upholding of Christian theology as the best as indicated by Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Christianity is tolerant of non-Christian views, but non-Christian views could not be the basis for our laws -- because natural law was the basis of morality and the laws of nature and man were established by Almighty God. This was part of William Blackstone's foundational theory in establishing modern English law, and it carried over through Enlightenment theories of knowledge advanced by John Locke, and, it might surprise some readers, even by Thomas Hobbes.
There is no need for the non-thought of Marxist dialectic. Under that “thinking,” history moves from a monarchical/feudal system (the thesis) to a period when that system gives rise to and is challenged by republican/capitalistic dialectical processes (the antithesis) that replace the thesis with a new system (synthesis) which new system becomes the new thesis. And that systemic change (which produced a new thesis) will in turn, eventually, be challenged by the proletariat (working class) which will violently overthrow capitalism. According to Karl Marx and his fellow commies, this “dialectic” is driven by economics.
This strict economic dialectic was modified to some degree by a group of communist professors known as the Frankfurt School who fled from Germany to the USA before the outbreak of WWII. They believed that the movement towards communism was dialectic but that it was in some general sense driven by “cultural” as well as “economic” forces and motives. Thus, we see a deep involvement of the DEI and ESG advocates, drag queen performances, gender fluidity as a cause, LGBTQIA++++ obsessions, and violent or disruptive responses to any who would question these political or social developments. Perverse rejection of the Judeo-Christian moral law is not only widespread but is justified by its left-wing advocates as being necessary to replace all or part of the paradigm of the past 2000+ years.
Marx derived his idea of the dialectic movement of history from Friedrich Hegel, although he put more of a focus on economics than did Hegel. But the good news is that both Hegel and Marx are completely wrong. There is no such thing as dialectical materialism governing the evolution of countries. It is a bogus idea introduced to affirm that the laws of nature were definitive in interpreting our reality. If God created the world, then the laws of that created nature were in effect. Those laws made their own demands upon the people, and thus, when one sees this, the idea of an imposed moral law, a law enforced by God, is no longer relevant.
The reality is that God's providence is in control of the so-called progress of history. Providence was a widely used term during the colonial period and early period of our founding but is used less and less. It needs to be restored to more everyday use. It is the true and living alternative to “dialectic,” which is a non-starter.
Washington’s Proclamation contains a truth and moral vision that can sustain a people forever -- if we will embrace it. May we give thanks that a man of this caliber and righteousness was our first President who led us against overwhelming odds to grasp the originating intentions of our "great experiment."
E. Jeffrey Ludwig is the author of four books which are available here. He is a Harvard Master Teacher and has taught at Harvard, Juniata College, Penn State, CUNY, and in various high schools.
Image: Thomas Sully