Thanksgiving 2020 is taking place in homes across America – a country emerging from a bitter election that confirmed its deep divisions. On Thanksgiving 1789, his first as president, George Washington led a nation similarly in need of unification.

Washington knew his young country faced forces that could pull it apart. As historian Maurizio Valsania writes, Washington “recognized that the United States was born out of slavery, conquest and violence as much as of sacred principle. Civic unification required acknowledgment of these flaws.” So Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation that asked God “to pardon our national and other transgressions.” And he advised his fellow citizens to make Thanksgiving a holiday in which “we may then all unite.”

And in a phrase that resonates across the centuries, Washington asked God 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.”

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Happy Thanksgiving!

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Naomi Schalit

Senior Editor, Politics + Society

President George Washington aimed to unify the country with his first Thanksgiving message. Getty Images

How George Washington used his first Thanksgiving as president to unite a new country

Maurizio Valsania, Università di Torino

For his first presidential Thanksgiving, George Washington aimed to pull his country together in the face of the many internal divisions that could yank it apart.

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