PRESIDENTIAL proclamations are typically verbose, ghostwritten, ceremonial and quickly forgotten. Remember Barack Obama's proclamation of America Recycles Day, 2012? No? It was just a few days ago.
As ephemeral as they are, some presidential proclamations are more dessert than turkey, sticking in memory because of the importance attached to an event about which the document was issued. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is the gravy covering several such examples.
Through the years, presidents have proclaimed a certain date as being Thanksgiving Day — as if the people might not know otherwise. And also through the years, Thanksgiving proclamations didn't always carry a November date.
George Washington declared Feb. 19, 1795, as a formal day of giving thanks. In 1789 it was Nov. 26. James Madison issued Thanksgiving proclamations for dates in January one year and April in another. We can be assured that no football was played on the latter date. Regardless of the year or month, Thursday has long been the designated day for giving thanks in this country.
Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations are often cited as proof that President X or President Y strongly believed in God and so should we all, even to the point of making it a national policy to do so. Washington's 1789 version begins, “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 ...”
In 1795, his proclamation was in the form of a recommendation, rather than a call to duty, for Americans to “render their sincere and hearty thanks to the Great Ruler of Nations for the manifold and signal mercies which distinguish our lot as a nation...”
Madison's 1814 proclamation mentioned “voluntarily offering” thanks, confession of sins and transgressions, and “strengthening” vows of repentance.
By contrast, Obama's 2011 proclamation mentioned not his own religious sentiments but instead quotes the proclamations of Washington and Lincoln on the subject.
It referred to the Pilgrims in passing but also gratitude to “all American Indians and Alaska Natives” — as if the proclamation were written by a Census Bureau functionary rather than a presidential speechwriter.
Presidential proclamations have the force of law but often aren't enforceable. A scholar for the American Presidency Project notes that President Gerald Ford used a proclamation to pardon Richard Nixon. While executive orders are aimed at those inside government, proclamations are generally targeted at the rest of us.
Before one Thanksgiving, Washington targeted God, beseeching Him to “pardon our national and other transgressions” and bring favor on all rulers and nations — “especially such as have shewn kindness to us.”
We beseech our readers to enjoy the day, to savor its food and its football. But don't forget the wishbone of offering thanks for our many blessings and our prayers for the nation's leaders.
This is adapted from an editorial written last year by Opinion Editor J.E. McReynolds.