Unlike certain national holidays, which happen automatically, Thanksgiving must be proclaimed each year by the president. George Washington made the first such proclamation in 1789, asking Americans to unite in thanks for, among other things, “the peaceful and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government.” President Lincoln revived the tradition during the Civil War, asking Americans to give thanks “with one heart and one voice.” And so the holiday has endured.
This Thanksgiving, instead of a favorite recipe or movie, I have found myself recommending one particular proclamation to my friends. It was written by President Kennedy. Proclamation 3560 begins, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving.” Kennedy then enumerates what our forefathers gave thanks for: their safety, their fields, their children. But he ends by noting “the love which bound them together.”
Kennedy wrote his message to a divided nation. Over the course of the 1960s, after Kennedy’s death, those divisions would deepen. Our current decade bears parallels to that time. We are still a fractured nation. We are still entangled in innumerable foreign wars. And we still, even on Thanksgiving, struggle to recognize one another as countrymen across economic, political and racial divides.
In the proclamation, Kennedy quotes Washington, who in his inaugural call for a thanksgiving asked the citizens of the new republic to beseech God “to pardon our national and other transgressions.” Kennedy was writing after the Bay of Pigs invasion, after the first “military advisers” had arrived in Vietnam, and only two months after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in which members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered four African-American girls. In that moment, we had transgressions aplenty. Just as we do today.