November 26, 2002 -- We’re told that Thanksgiving is a time to count our blessings, as the Massachusetts Pilgrims did in 1621 after a harsh year that saw half of the Mayflower’s original passengers perish. Today, we mark Thanksgiving with parades and football as well as family gatherings, but few of us have ever experienced the Pilgrims’ near-starvation. What are the blessings we’re suppose to count today? How, exactly, are Americans blessed?
Ancient philosophers like Aristotle maintained that we create the most important thing in life for ourselves—our moral character. When circumstances beyond our control—illnesses, natural disasters, wars—work against us, we still retain happiness and serenity. With health, peace, good family, and friends, we are truly blessed. Yet most of what we call “blessings” in fact follow from our character and our own efforts.
Man might not live on bread alone, but he does need bread to live. Millions of settlers and immigrants saw this as a continent blessed with land that is fertile and rich in resources. The original Pilgrims were aiming for Virginia but landed too far north, in land too rocky for large-scale farming, so they and their descendants made Boston a center of fishing, trade, and shipping. From Maine to Georgia, settlers cleared the land for farms, built roads to deliver their produce, and built cities from New York to Charleston. In time they spread west, building canals and railways, creating industries like steel and electricity that reshaped their world. In our own day, the same spirit of enterprise has produced space travel, the Internet, and a communications and information revolution.
Thanksgiving is a harvest festival with roots in humanity’s history more ancient than the Pilgrims. It is a celebration of the human power to produce, and nowhere has this power been so awesomely revealed as in America. Today, Americans spend less than 15 percent of their income on food, and nearly half of that is for eating out. The standard of living that is the envy of the world came from the exercise of reason, courage, temperance, honesty, justice, and pride. America’s resources were blessings only because we made them so.
The same is true of our political system. After being elected the country’s first president in 1789, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the establishment of “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.” Of course, the Constitution bestowed on us the blessings of liberty in part because we in turn were blessed with men of wisdom, conviction, and moral character like Washington himself. He refused offers to become America’s new king George, and he set a republican example as president by limiting himself to two terms. Other countries were afflicted with the likes of Caesar and Napoleon, or cursed with Hitlers, Stalins, and Maos. We had Jeffersons and Madisons.
While these men were blessings, Americans had to make themselves worthy of leaders like these. As the Constitutional Convention concluded, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what form of government he and his colleagues had given us. He answered “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.” Franklin was right to point out that the Constitution would be a blessing if Americans had the character to rise to the challenges of the freedoms it protected and to cherish it enough to fight for its preservation. As with our wealth, so with our freedom: It is a blessing that has to be earned.
At Thanksgiving, many Americans go out of their way to share their blessings with the poor and homeless. We’re such a benevolent people that we can’t accept that anyone should have to find this world a permanent realm of suffering. We hope that by bestowing on them a blessing we show them that they are worthy of happiness. But we also must remember that in the end we each must help ourselves and take advantage of the blessings afforded us.
It is right that at Thanksgiving most Americans enjoy the good things in life; family, friends, food, football, and even the shopping spree that follows are all part of our harvest of the bounty of the season! These are blessings, but they are ultimately earned and enjoyed by those who create their moral character within.