It is 6:07 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11. This article is due at midnight, and I’ve just begun to write it. Why? I think the reason is obvious, but let’s just say that the events of Tuesday turned my week into a whirlwind of grief. The anger I felt on the wee hours of morning of Wednesday turned into denial by mid-afternoon and early evening. I have not gotten over that stage yet. I don’t even want to know what depression will look like.
A few weeks ago, I began curating a Houghton exhibition that is to be put up around the time of Inauguration, celebrating the most powerful office in the land. Despite the unforeseen result, the exhibition will go on. One of the remarkable features of this nation is its people’s incredible faith in its institutions, of which the Presidency has been the most revered. We will see if this picture will change in the next few months.
One of the items that will be included in this exhibition—in fact, the item that opens it—is a proclamation by President George Washington promulgating this country’s first Thanksgiving holiday to be held on November 26, 1789 (call number AB7 Un33P 789bb, HOLLIS number 007193023). In this proclamation, President Washington thanks “Almighty God” for a litany of blessings:
"... for the great degree of tranquillity, 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."
This country has had its ups and downs. It has not always been tranquil, united, and plentiful, nor have its denizens always possessed full “civil and religious liberty.” It has always worked toward all of these goals, however: The Constitution, after all, makes the goal of the “People of the United States” that of forming “a more perfect Union,” and that Union is, supposedly, based on the creed that “all men are created equal.”
Later in the proclamation, President Washington reverts from thanking to praying. He asks God
"... 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."
True religion aside—this country is supposedly secular—I suggest all Americans make Washington’s prayer their Thanksgiving prayer this year. May the government continue to guarantee the “safety and happiness” of all inhabitants of this land, and may “civil and religious liberty” continue to be a given. Indeed, let us pray, ask, or wish—whether we are Christian, Muslim, atheist, or anything else—that the “National Government” will remain a “blessing” to us” and that it will be one of “wise, just, and constitutional laws.” Let the whole world be blessed with “good governments, peace, and concord.” Let us know and practice true virtue and remind ourselves daily to be kind and ethical while eschewing evil. Finally, let us remain prosperous.This has been an upsetting year for a variety of reasons; it is not the first of such years on record, and it most certainly won’t be the last. Though we must keep moving forward, let us not forget to look back so as not to repeat the same mistakes so many have before us. Houghton, with its all-encompassing collection, is there to help.