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Alleged Quotations: Washington and the Duty of Nations

Posted by sbh on Monday, 6 July 2009

Did Washington say:

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 implore his protection and favor.

in 1789?

Yes, almost.  This was part of his Thanksgiving proclamation, the first in the nation’s history under the Constitution.  The text ran as follows:

City of New York, October 3, 1789.

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 thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many 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, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, 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 and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath 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 unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease 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.

The proclamation is in the handwriting of William Jackson and signed by Washington.

As noted the proclamation was issued in response to a request from Congress.  The resolution was introduced in the House on 25 September by Elias Boudinot (P, NJ), the one-time president of the Continental Congress who would later write The Age of Revelation in reply to Paine’s The Age of Reason and serve as first president of the American Bible Society.  “Mr. Boudinot said,” according to the Annals of Congress, that “he could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the Untied States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”  The resolution he proposed:

Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would 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 signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.

There were rumblings of discontent at the proposal.  Aedanus Burke (A, SC) objected to “this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.  Two parties at war frequently sung Te Deum for the same event, though to one it was a victory, and to the other a defeat.”

Boudinot rejoined that he “was sorry to hear arguments drawn from the abuse of a good thing against the use of it.  He hoped no gentleman would make a serious opposition to a measure both prudent and just.”

Thomas Tudor Tucker (A, SC) made some pointed objections: he “thought the House had no business to interfere in a matter whcih did not concern them.  Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?  They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.  We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced; but whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.”

Roger Sherman (P, CT) “justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point.  This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.”

Elias Boudinot additionally justified the proclamation by citing the practice of the Continental Congress, and the matter was voted on and passed.  A joint committee consisting of Boudinot, Sherman, and Peter Silvester (P, NY) from the House, and William Samuel Johnson (P, CT) and Ralph Izard (P, SC) from the Senate, laid the resolution before President Washington.  And as we saw above Washington proclaimed 26 November a day of prayer and thanksgiving on 3 October 1789.


Thanksgiving Proclamation (Text at University of Virginia)

The Thanksgiving Proclamation (Papers of George Washington)

The Constitution and Separation of Church and State part 1 (Jim Allison)

One Response to “Alleged Quotations: Washington and the Duty of Nations”

  1. Ed Darrell said

    At least one of the resolutions from Congress specified what Congress wanted the proclamation to say. It included references to Jesus. Washington methodically eliminated all references to Jesus (and did so throughout his career).

    Was that the case with this resolution?

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