On Thursday most Americans will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. In these times of economic uncertainty and hardship, the gathering may be less festive than in more prosperous times. When we are anxious, it is all too easy to lose perspective. The onset of the Great Recession in 2008 inflicted serious harm to many American. However, as a nation we are slowly recovering from that setback. Unlike much of the world’s population, where grinding poverty is a normal condition and hope for a better future is not realistic, Americans have reason to give thanks. For us, such troubles are temporary setbacks. We live in the belief that good times will return, that prosperity is just around the corner.
Most of us were taught in school that our Thanksgiving tradition began with the Pilgrims’ celebration of thanks for a good harvest in 1621. However, the practice of giving thanks for God’s blessing is rooted in many religious traditions that precede the Pilgrims’ feast by many centuries. The continuation of the tradition for the next 168 years was primarily by proclamations issued from time to time by religious leaders. After 1782, such proclamations were often issued jointly by religious and state officials. George Washington declared a National Day of Thanksgiving be held on November 26, 1789. The next presidential Thanksgiving Day Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, designating the last Thursday of November as a national holiday. But the nation was at war, thus Confederate States did not recognize Lincoln’s authority. Not until Franklin D. Roosevelt signed federal legislation designating the fourth Thursday of November as the official date for the observance of Thanksgiving was the nation unified in celebrating this holiday.
There is no doubt that the Pilgrims were exercising their freedom of religion when they gathered to give thanks in 1621. They had fled the Old World to escape religious oppression. They were giving thanks for having survived a dangerous voyage and near starvation in an unknown wilderness. The prospect of freedom was worth the dangers and privations. As the centuries passed, many other groups arrived in the New World seeking a life that was free of various types of oppression, both religious and secular. Each of these groups, whether Puritan, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Anabaptist, atheist, Muslim, or others came here seeking freedoms that had been denied them in the Old World.
In 1776, in the eloquent words of Thomas Jefferson, the colonists declared the reasons for separating from England, stated their belief that “all men are created equal” and that they are endowed with “inalienable rights.” The Declaration of Independence was essentially the mission statement of the nation that was to emerge after the Revolution. When the United States became a nation in 1787 under the Constitution, the founders could not claim the ideals of the Declaration were a reality. They were aspirations. Slavery was not only legal, but many of the founders, including Jefferson, owned slaves. Only white property owners had the right to vote. Women would not have the right to vote until 1920. Native Americans were certainly not viewed by the white population as equal. Thus, in 1787, the Constitutional Congress restated the aspirations of the new nations in the Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Declaration addressed England’s denial of the right of colonists to have independent judges administer justice. The Constitution created as a coequal branch of government an independent judiciary. Thus, the new nation took the philosophy of the Declaration and made the rule of law, through an independent judiciary, a structural part of our government. There is no doubt that in 1787, as a nation, we were a long way from achieving the goal of equality. But the rule of law would facilitate our ambition to draw nearer to the promise we made to the world that this is a nation that recognizes equal rights under the rule of law.
The complexity of the United States cannot be understated. We are a huge and diverse nation. We are committed to justice, but defining justice is difficult. Justice is often the balancing of competing interests. If I am an environmentalist and you are a developer, our measure of justice may be very different from mine. If a marriage is ending in divorce, in all likelihood each party will feel that justice was denied them. In most conflicts, justice is imperfect because there a few perfect resolutions of conflict. However, in our most fundamental concept of government, we are committed to a rule of law that provides a democratic resolution of these complex problems. We expect judges to be impartial and independent. If we have a jury, we know that this is the closest we come to democracy: citizens pulled from the community to resolve a conflict. Juries and judges are human, thus they cannot render perfect justice. As the founders likely realized, the independent judicial system provides us with the means to strive toward the aspirations we declared in 1776.
On Thanksgiving Day, as we give thanks according the religious faith of our choice, we should also give thanks that we live in a nation where we are confident no official will barge into our home to tell us that our chosen faith, or lack of faith, is a crime. We can be thankful that though we have just concluded a contentious election, we are free to complain about its outcome. Here we do not live in fear that the government might come knocking because of displeasure regarding our prayers or political criticism. The constitutions of many countries include lofty sounding statements of the rights guaranteed to citizens. More often than not those statements remain dormant, ironic slogans. But in the United States it is the independent judiciary, standing equal to the other two branches, that provides the means to make our Bill of Rights a living, meaningful and enforceable set of principles in the life of this nation.
We wish everyone a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday in the knowledge that as a nation we have much for which to be thankful. We should be grateful that our strength as a people, bound together under the rule of law, will assure that we will overcome the adversities we face. We must continue to strive toward the aspirations so eloquently published to the world in 1776 that we were establishing a government to enable us to secure those inalienable rights, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We have not achieved, nor will we achieve, the promises made long ago in the Declaration. But we have the privilege of living in a country that provides us the means to continue working to realize the ideals that constitute the Great American Experiment in Democracy and Freedom.