Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving Proclamation 1789...

I had never read this before and for that matter didn't even realize it existed. Our preacher put it in the bulletin this week and I thought I would share. The very words that President Washington used in this proclamation tells me for sure that the separation of church and state was not intended to be interpreted the way our government, justices and the ACLU interprets it today. I am interested to know what you think.  

George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation

     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 and 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 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 has been pleased to confer upon us.
     And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
     Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3rd day of October, A.D. 1789.

G. Washington

Have a wonderful and grateful week.


  1. 1. Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    As one would expect, beyond the Constitution itself, the available historical evidence does not all point in the same direction. For instance, while Washington offered Thanksgiving proclamations as you note, seemingly seeing no problem in that, Jefferson refrained from issuing any such proclamations for the very reason he thought the Constitution precluded it. Madison too preferred not to issue any such proclamations, but upon being requested by Congress to do so, reluctantly issued one, though taking pains to word it so as merely to encourage those so inclined to celebrate the day. He later almost sheepishly acknowledged that had been a mistake.

    This evidence can be seen in at least two ways. On one hand, it can be seen, as you seemingly suggest, as evidence that the founders considered those actions to conform to the Constitution, thus indicating they did not intend the Constitution to prevent the government from taking actions of that sort with respect to religion. On the other hand, it can be seen as examples of early mistakes by Congress and the Executive, where they failed to conform to the Constitution. Mistakes of that sort are hardly unexpected or unusual. Note that Congress made two other similar mistakes during Madison's presidency, resulting in two vetoes of bills. The government has made many such mistakes during our history, and continues to make them to this day.

  2. 2. Madison discussed just this point in his Detached Memoranda, where he not only stated plainly his understanding that the Constitution prohibits the government from promoting religion by such acts as appointing chaplains for the houses of Congress and the army and navy or by issuing proclamations recommending thanksgiving, he also addressed the question of what to make of the government’s actions doing just that. Ever practical, he answered not with a demand these actions inconsistent with the Constitution be undone, but rather with an explanation to circumscribe their ill effect: “Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [i.e., the law does not concern itself with trifles]: or to class it cum maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura [i.e., faults proceeding either from negligence or from the imperfection of our nature].” Basically, he recognized that because too many people might be upset by reversing these actions, it would be politically difficult and perhaps infeasible to do so in order to adhere to the constitutional principle, and thus he proposed giving these particular missteps a pass, while at the same time assuring they are not regarded as legitimate precedent of what the Constitution means, so they do not influence future actions.

    In its jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has, in effect, followed Madison’s approach--confirming the basic constitutional principle of separation of church and state, while also giving a pass to some governmental statements or actions about religion on one or another theory. Notwithstanding sometimes lofty rhetoric by courts and commentators about an impenetrable wall of separation, as maintained by the courts, that wall is low and leaky enough to allow various connections between government and religion. Indeed, the exceptions and nuances recognized by the courts can confuse laymen and lawyers alike, occasionally prompting some to question the principle itself, since decisions in various cases may seem contradictory (e.g., depending on the circumstances, sometimes government display of the 10 commandments is okay and sometimes not). In any event, the Court's rulings confirming the Constitution's separation of church and state have long since become integral to the law and social fabric of our nation--not the sort of decisions to be overruled lightly.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

  3. Doug,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. I went to the site you reccommended ( It looks like a very thorough and helpful site. I am preparing to leave on a trip and also getting ready for the holidays and haven't been able to stop long enough to read it as I should, but upon my return I will go back into it.
    I love getting comments on my blog, but don't want to use it as a place to argue or debate. I will look at the site you reccommended and study carefully what it has to say.
    If you don't mind me asking how did you happen to stumble onto my blog?
    Thank you again for your comment.

  4. Sugar Moon,

    I found your blog among the results of a web search for "separation of church and state."

    I respect your choice of how to use your blog.

    Just so you'll know, the Wake Forest paper does not get into history much; it describes the current law.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...