Do you thank God or government for the circumstances of your life? It’s a relevant question as Americans approach Thanksgiving. The answer was clear to the extraordinary leaders who laid the groundwork for the colonies, fought for the founding of our country, and struggled to preserve our republic in the face of nationwide strife.
In November of 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay. The arduous journey across the Atlantic to escape the yoke of oppressive government had taken more than 60 days. But the worst suffering still lay ahead for 102 souls comprising the passengers and crew. Only half lived to see the spring.
Under the leadership of William Bradford, the surviving “Pilgrims” remained steadfast in prayer and worked to establish a village at Plymouth. They formed an alliance with local tribes and learned to cultivate corn and tap sap from maple trees. Hard work and personal responsibility led to a successful harvest in the autumn of 1621.
A celebratory feast, that included their Native American allies, was organized by Governor Bradford. Despite loss and suffering, hope and faith in God had guided them in the pursuit of liberty and religious freedom. Governor Bradford proclaimed, “the great Father…has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.”
Just over 150 years later, the American colonies were engaged in a desperate revolution against an overbearing empire. In the winter of 1777, the Continental Army was in disarray and despair at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Beaten in battle, starving, freezing, and dying of disease, the citizen soldiers were ready to abandon their struggle for liberty.
According to historical accounts, General George Washington held to his faith and sought God’s help through prayer. The following spring, the fortunes of the Continental Army began to change, especially after France entered the war. Ultimately, many of Washington’s winter-hardened soldiers fought at York, Virginia and defeated Lord Cornwallis, forcing the surrender of the British army.
A dozen years after the Valley Forge hardships, a new Constitution framed a government with the power to uphold the rule of law, but limited by the will of citizens. As President, Washington declared the first National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789. He beseeched Americans to, “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.”
Less than eight decades later, the fabric of our nation was torn by the Civil War. Amidst death and destruction, the prospect for a united country with freedom for all people seemed grim. During the first 3 days of July in 1863, the battle of Gettysburg alone resulted in over 50,000 American casualties.
As the war raged, President Abraham Lincoln received a request from a newspaper editor named Sarah Josepha Hale to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Moved by the uniting prospect, Lincoln designated the new holiday on October 3, 1863. His proclamation implored, “the interposition of the Almighty to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
By the time Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg address, the tide of the war was shifted in favor of the Union. On November 19 Lincoln declared, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Times have changed. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s Thanksgiving Proclamation asked citizens to, “show our appreciation to Americans who are serving in their communities, ensuring their neighbors have a hot meal and a place to stay. Their actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
Mr. Obama values a society of citizens who thankfully see government as the ultimate benefactor and arbitrator. Bradford, Washington, and Lincoln valued the Divine gift of free will that allows the choice of personal responsibility over inaction and dependency. Freedom without responsibility can only lead to the loss of liberty sought and fought for by our forebears.
Does God or government deserve our true gratitude? The future of America depends on our answer.
James D. Kellogg is a professional engineer, the author of Radical Action: A Colt Kelley Thriller, and an advocate of liberty and the Constitution. Visit jamesdkellogg.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.