This Day in History: The Founders, the First Amendment, & Religious Freedom

On this day in 1789, President George Washington issues his first Thanksgiving Proclamation. Congress had asked him to do so, and he wasted no time in complying with the request. It was something that he had done many times before as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

The timing of the proclamation tells a story regarding what our Founders believed about our constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

Congressmen sent their request for a thanksgiving proclamation mere days after they’d approved a proposed Bill of Rights for our Constitution. One of these proposals, of course, would later be ratified as our First Amendment. The words in the First Amendment are simple: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

Please note that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the amendment! THAT phrase comes from later writings of Thomas Jefferson and the Supreme Court.

Naturally, neither Congress nor the President was bound by the language of the First Amendment on October 3, when Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. However, Congress had just spent significant time and effort debating the topic of church-state relations. Why would congressmen immediately turn around and violate their own ideas of what was appropriate?

For his part, Washington clearly saw no problem with the request for thanksgiving and prayer. Congress submitted its request to the President by September 28. Washington responded on October 3. His proclamation was a strong statement that stressed the need for public, collective deference and praise to God. Interestingly, he did not speak of it as something that could be optional. Such action, he said, is a *duty* incumbent upon the American people.

Indeed, Washington concluded that, if the country were to “unite” in such a fashion, public benefits would be felt. Americans, Washington wrote, might “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.”

One last interesting observation on Washington’s proclamation? As was so often the case with him, his proclamation is written in a non-denominational manner. Washington knew, better than anyone, what a great diversity of religion existed in the new country. His approach to religion at this point in his life was pretty clear: He wanted to accommodate and even to encourage the practice of religion, but he seemed to be striving to do so in ways that were non-denominational, recognizing and respecting the nation’s religious minorities.

At this juncture, you know that I pretty much have to remind you that more information about Washington’s views on matters of church and state can be found in the book that I co-authored with Joe Smith: “Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State.” (www.GeorgeWashingtonBook.com)