Thanksgiving is the holiday that most perfectly reflects the political theology of America. Its distinctive blend of religious politics, and political religion. And there are few better representatives of this fusion than George Washington. Listen to the music of his political theology in this, the beginning of his famous Thanksgiving Day proclamation of 1789:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations 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– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–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–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
As it happens, an excellent edited collection has just been published by Carson Holloway and our dear friend and outgoing executive director of the James Madison program at Princeton, Bradford P. Wilson: The Political Writings of George Washington (Cambridge University Press). I’m told a paperback edition is in the offing as well, but this one looks well worth a holiday splurge.
The Political Writings of George Washington includes Washington’s enduring writings on politics, prudence, and statesmanship in two volumes. It is the only complete collection of his political thought, which historically, has received less attention than the writings of other leading founders such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. Covering his life of public service—from his young manhood, when he fought in the French and Indian Wars, through his time as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary army; his two terms as America’s first president, and his brief periods of retirement, during which he followed and commented on American politics astutely—the volumes also include first-hand accounts of Washington’s death and reflections on his legacy by those who knew or reflected deeply on his significance. The result is a more thorough understanding of Washington’s political thought and the American founding.