Earlier versions of this article appeared in both November 2019 and November 2020. During a year of continuing division in our country—but with a still-enduring belief in the combination of freedom, family, and benevolence that distinguishes the Thanksgiving holiday as a unifying civic moment for us all—we feature it again.
Two hundred thirty-two years ago, George Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, in the same spirit of a practice he knew intimately years before he took office as President. During the Revolutionary War, following skirmishes on the battlefield, Gen. Washington would have a prayer service to give thanks to the Almighty for inspiring the heroic actions of those who fought.
In September 1789, Congress passed a joint resolution recommending a national holiday, Thanksgiving. On October 3, the President’s Proclamation acknowledged the providence of Almighty God, expressed gratitude for His benefits, and humbly implored His protection. Washington inaugurated Thanksgiving as an annual reminder of the Almighty’s gifts and with it, the obligation to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence Of almighty God, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor,” the Proclamation begins,
and whereas both Houses of Congress by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer ….”
… I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 24th of November next, to be devoted to the service of that great and glorious Being …. 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 … and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
This Thanksgiving, those of us who count ourselves fortunate to have had a career in the practice of philanthropy should be attentive to Washington’s words of thanks, written with humility and gratitude.
Normally, of course, grant recipients are most grateful. For the giver, such gratitude is anticipated and, well, expected. Given human nature, risks on the part of a giver in the face of that gratitude include arrogance, self-satisfaction, and smugness. In philanthropy, the “embarrassment of riches” too easily gets in the way of common-sense, good judgment. A sense of entitlement overcomes a self-understanding of one’s own limitations.
In Yuval Levin’s 2013 Bradley Prize acceptance remarks, he stressed the importance of—the same importance Washington placed on—setting aside time to give thanks for our blessings. “I want to say a few words about that project of conservation and strengthening—about the work that so many people in this room do, and which I’ve been privileged to lend a hand in,” he said. The people in the room were mostly grant recipients.
For some of us, it’s a project that goes by the name of conservatism and has an eye on politics and policy. For others, maybe it’s first of all a cultural project, to secure the preconditions for human flourishing and renewal. For others it might be a moral calling—to defend the defenseless and help those in need. For others still it’s an educational cause, instilling civic virtue and a sense of history and purpose in the next generation.
Many of you do all of that at once, because these different facets are deeply connected, and these different names for work you’re engaged in are all ways of expressing the sentiment that drives so much of what we do but that we don’t often enough name: Gratitude.
In continuing to think, and now write, about philanthropy, we join in at least trying to do aspects of all of that at once. Mindful of both Washington’s stirring Proclamation and Levin’s gracious remarks, then, to The Giving Review’s readers—whatever your worldview and whatever you do—we sincerely thank you for engaging with our thoughts these past few months.
And, most of all, have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.