George Washington was first in war, first in peace, and in November 1789, the first president to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving, openly acknowledging God as the source of all "the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us."
Among the "favors" were a Declaration of Independence that inspires us to the present day, a remarkable military victory over the most powerful nation in the world, and an ingenious Constitution of checks and balances that places "we the people" at the center of our government.
For the next fourscore and seven years, most states honored a November date as a day of prayer and fasting, but there was no national celebration. Of the early presidents, only James Madison, in 1814 and 1815, issued proclamations.
Then in November 1863, with the Civil War still raging, President Abraham Lincoln officially declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving. Echoing Washington, Lincoln asked Americans to "implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full employment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union."
God heard the people's prayers for an end to war and the preservation of the Union, but He had yet to vouchsafe a "full" employment of harmony and tranquility.
Succeeding presidents issued proclamations in the same providential spirit of Lincoln and Washington, freely thanking God for His favors and benefits. In 1904, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt said that "the time has come [again] when a special day shall be set apart in which to thank Him, who holds all nations in the hollow of His hand, for the mercies thus vouchsafed to us." In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge said that Americans should "devoutly give thanks to the Almighty for the many and great blessings they have received, to seek His guidance that they may receive a continuance of His favor."
However, with the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the coming of secular progressivism, God was given an increasingly secondary role while the "civic spirit" of America was extolled. "May we on Thanksgiving Day and on every day," said FDR in the middle of World War II, careful not to use the "G" word, "express our gratitude and zealously devote ourselves to our duties as individuals and as a nation."
President John F. Kennedy also skirted the word "God," calling on Americans to "renew that spirit [of Thanksgiving] by offering our thanks for uncovenanted mercies, beyond our desert or merit, and by resolving to meet the responsibilities placed upon us." Faithful to his progressive roots, President Barack Obama declared in his 2012 Thanksgiving proclamation that "we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth but from our bonds to each other" (but not, apparently, to a transcendent being).
As he did in so many ways, President Ronald Reagan broke sharply with the progressives, taking inspiration from Washington and Lincoln and reemphasizing the religious character of Thanksgiving. Quoting the 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, Reagan said that "no human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God." Reagan went on: "God has blessed America and her people, and it is appropriate we recognize this bounty."
Thanksgiving has always been rooted in the notion, wrote commentator Daniel Horowitz, "that as a nation, our entire prosperity, security, and liberty is completely dependent upon God's providence." So on this Thanksgiving Day in the year of our Lord two thousand sixteen, let us give thanks and thanks and ever thanks to Him who gives us life, liberty, and happiness.