The first executive order ever given by a President of the United States was George Washington's decree on October 3, 1789, proclaiming a national day of Thanksgiving.
Embedded in this short, roughly 500-word proclamation is an appeal for our nation to be thankful for seven basic principles, hallmarks of the fledgling republic.
Now, 227 years later, we need these principles more than ever as we face a politically divided future. We can all rally around principles of thankfulness that Washington laid out for us to remember.
Washington’s Seven Principles of Thankfulness
For our nation as a whole to truly be thankful, Washington outlined seven national and foreign policy statements that define what it means for our nation to be one of thanksgiving:
- Seeking Pardon for our national and personal transgressions;
- Performing our duties properly and punctually;
- To render our government a blessing to all people by ” being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws;”
- To be an active player in world politics, “to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us)”;
- To promote religious freedom worldwide;
- To promote knowledge worldwide, especially sciences; and
- To seek worldwide prosperity.
Too often, the Founding Fathers are seen as demi-gods, who could do no wrong in their actions; yet Washington openly acknowledged the need for our nation to constantly reflect on our actions in order to right wrongs and to seek pardon when necessary. Today is no different. Part of being the most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth is to use that power wisely — and to adjust our actions when necessary.
Unlike many of Washington’s successors, Washington believed in a United States that was active in world events. While Washington wanted an active foreign policy, he also knew how to stay out of troubles that didn’t concern us. Three years later, he would issue a Proclamation of Neutrality — an executive order declaring the United States neutral in the Napoleonic wars brewing in Europe.
A scholar of the Enlightenment, Washington saw religion and science as two equally valuable, mutually-exclusive, yet non-competing disciplines. Enlightenment thinkers often believed that the physical world needed to be explained through the sciences, while issues of faith remained in the realm of religion. Both disciplines can grow without bitter competition or revisionism.
Most of the financial experience the Founders had was within the European system of mercantilism — filled with protectionism, colonialism, and oppressive monetary policies. America was just entering the world stage on its own footing, trying to launch a free-market style trade by establishing treaties and trade routes.
Capitalism was in its earliest of phases. Early economic writers like Smith (1776), Quesnay (1759), and Say (1794) all believed that the market economy provided increased economic prosperity to all who engaged in trade.
Today, as America's capitalism has matured and become a mixed-economy, we need to still be thankful and use our financial might for the betterment of our nation first, then the rest of the world.
2016 and Beyond
Thanksgiving is a time for friends and families, a time of shopping, and looking forward to the winter holidays.
We need thanksgiving in our lives every day, gratefulness for living in an economically and politically stable nation -- while much of the world is in turmoil and uncertainty.
We need to see past the angst of political disappointment, the fear of the unknown, and hostility in politics -- and really think about what things have made our lives great and where we could use some improvement.
Because that is the greatest aspect of Thanksgiving -- a reflection on what we have, those who have helped us, righting the wrongs we have done, and looking toward our future with hope.
We need George Washington's seven principles of thanksgiving in our lives -- not just this week -- but as a reminder of what our politics as a nation should truly be.