Growing up in Montreal, I only knew of Thanksgiving from watching American television. Canada has its own Thanksgiving holiday—or l’Action de grâce as it is called in Quebec—but I still don’t know anyone who celebrates it. Back home, it’s just another federal holiday—a day off from school or work.
Not so in America. In the 14 years I have lived in my adopted country, I cannot recall meeting a single American, native or foreign born, who did not properly celebrate Thanksgiving.
Today, this means going home to be with family. But it is worth remembering that Thanksgiving, as its name indicates, is primarily about gratitude.
This, admittedly, is not a sentiment that finds much support these days. Quite the contrary in fact. The endless onslaught of advertising promotes dissatisfaction with what we have. The way we teach history encourages us to despise our country. And the media—on both the Left and the Right—cultivate constant indignation.
It can be hard, at times, to remember all that there is to be grateful for here in America. And yet we should. The most felicitous expression of that sentiment is found in Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address on “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions”:
“We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them—they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.”
Adapting an infamous line by President Obama, we could say that Lincoln is reminding us: “you didn’t build that.” Except that in his case, the “that” is our country, not our businesses. It was built by our forefathers, not the government. And Lincoln is trying to foster gratitude, not justify taxation and government spending. As he goes on to say:
“Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ‘tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.”
Such a way of thinking does not come readily to us. In fact, as Tocqueville warned, democracy pulls us in the opposite direction: “not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries.”
Lincoln reminds us that we are trustees. We inherited America from those who built it and we must transmit it to our posterity—who in turn will do the same. America, contrary to what Jefferson once wrote, does not belong to the living. It belongs to the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be born. We are but custodians in a long chain stretching back to the Founding (Lincoln would surely view with distaste our predilection, inherited from the Boomers, for naming the generations).
As such, we should be imbued with gratitude for those who founded, built, and preserved this great country. Our gratitude for the deeds of the fathers need not blind us to their sins. Nor should it detract us from what can be done to improve upon their legacy. But we cannot let the shortcomings of the fathers loom larger in our mind than the blessings they bequeathed, lest our gratitude give way to outrage. We cannot love that which we despise and only those who are grateful for their country can love it.