Being Thankful for National Communities and Civil Religion, Sometimes

by Russell Arben Fox on November 28, 2013 · 7 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Food,Region & Place

1863Thanksgiving[Cross-Posted to In Medias Res]

Amongst those Americans who believe that the civic virtues which make both popular government and a fulfilling independence possible are themselves dependent upon, to a great extent, the preservation of traditions and an attachment to place–in other words, amongst those Americans for whom the call of “localism” has some substantive political and moral meaning–no one gets beaten up quite as much as Abraham Lincoln. No, he’s not generally made out to be an absolute enemy to all forms of classical republican and participatory democratic virtue, but admittedly, the way in which Lincoln’s legacy seems sometimes to almost define the deep meaning of American history can drive many a localist to extremes. It cannot be denied, I think, that Lincoln’s response to the secession of the Southern states firmly (and perhaps also unavoidably) tied the forces of America’s national government and economy to industrial capitalism, entrepreneurial expansion, and liberal universalism: all agendas which, whatever their many obvious benefits for millions of American citizens, both black and white, immigrant and native-born, over the past century and a half, were and remain today destructive of local attachments and places. The recent 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address–a speech which I think, like it or not, has become the most consequential and important that any American president has ever given–reminds those of us with localist sympathies that, to a great extent, Lincoln managed to bring out of (or–perhaps better–through) the blood and horror of the Civil War a kind of national evangelism, and that the content of that redemptive nationalist narrative is basically an ideological expansive, rather than a humbly traditional, one. And so the frustrating legacy of Lincoln’s actions at a long-ago time of violent and desperate dissension (which, thankfully, has never quite been repeated–and, hopefully, never will be in any of our lifetimes) remains.

On this Thanksgiving Day, however, I want to acknowledge a different (and, I think, more meaningful, if perhaps not ultimately more important in a political and economic sense) 150th anniversary. Today, November 28, 2013, is the 150th Thanksgiving holiday since President Lincoln, encouraged by both the indefatigable efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale and hundreds of other (mostly female) local activists throughout the country, as well as perhaps his own sentimental (even pious) hopes for the union, issued a declaration officially setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national holiday. (After President Roosevelt messed with the holiday some in 1939 and 1940, Congress settled upon the fourth Thursday, where it has remained ever since.) People can properly argue the pros and cons of the sort of civil religion which Lincoln’s rhetoric, in the Gettysburg Address and elsewhere throughout the Civil War, ended up establishing throughout the nation, and I can jump into that debate and find sympathy for both sides, as I think is probably the case with most sympathizers with localism in our thoroughly nationalized and globalized 21st-century country. But when it comes to the establishment of America’s Thanksgiving holiday–which I would argue is the formal high point in our yearly national liturgy, one which unavoidably involves, in President Lincoln’s words, an invitation to observe “a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens”–I am nothing but a complete enthusiast.

Holidays are important to me–important enough, at least, to be happy to argue at length about their significance. To sum up my beliefs about the matter as briefly as possible (read the longer version here): yes, I acknowledge that in our late modern world of individual subjectivity, personal and intellectual and even moral mobility, and–perhaps most importantly–disposable consumerism, it is hard to make the case that there is anything “traditional” about holidays. They can all, without exception, be attacked as “invented” occasions, making use of a “fake” history, concocted solely to address or celebrate or salve some political or social or religious interest. I would respond, though, that such inventing is never a totally and circumstantially “interested” phenomenon; rather, every holiday celebration is constructed through exactly the sort of “creative remembering” which actually (at least assuming one accepts the basic fundamentals of Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutics, or Polanyian tacitness, or even Oakeshottian common sense) describes the way in which all of us think about, and discern meaning in and through, the experiences that we are embedded in. In the matter of Thanksgiving, it was an occasion which connected Sarah Hale and many others to both a past and a particular place, and the meaning which she and others, as the 19th-century progressed and ultimately turned to war, found in that connection pressed upon them as something worth formalizing. She was not alone in feeling this way; by the time of the Civil War, 25 out of the then-existing 34 states had issued their own Thanksgiving proclamations. So the holiday, far from being invented by a placeless president to sanctify a devastating war, was an organic development, a collective and pious expression–or remembrance–of something which had genuine spiritual meaning nationwide.

Is that, in itself, a reason to challenge the holiday, at least insofar as its ties to the legacy of Lincoln are concerned? Why have national holidays at all? Shouldn’t that collective and creative remembering be reserved to communities which share a locality and a history which every member can be a participant in?

Well, of course, local communities and individual states can and do articulate their own formal occasions of commemoration. And moreover, I can see the point of the complaint: accepting the existence of a nation-wide community capable of such a formal, civil remembering–that is, accepting the idea of an American national community, if only for the purposes of being able to collectively acknowledge a certain thankful relationship to God–will invariably add moral legitimacy to the national state. To which I can only respond: I’m not sure how any localist who isn’t actually a complete utopian anarchist or individualist or libertarian–as worthy of interest as those approaches may be–can wholly deny the subsidiarian legitimacy of at least some national level of government. We are a mobile people (and always have been), and who is to say that the growing reliance upon–and the national reach of–the rhetoric and tropes of our civil religion wasn’t itself an outgrowth of a mobile people who, perhaps unintentionally, were seeking to keep in mind, in the midst of constant transformation (to say nothing to the creative destruction entrenched by the economic liberty of the Industrial Revolution), some kind of attachment and identity? Civil religions, understood in this way (and as I have argued before), are perhaps inexorable; any even moderately free people will seek to build them. In which case, if we Americans are to have a national government (and while there are numerous philosophical, prudential, and constitutional arguments to be made over what shape and scope such a national state ought to take, I am unpersuaded that there are an equal number of good arguments against its existence entirely), then isn’t it worth celebrating that this particular national state, 150 years ago, formally committed itself to as humble and localizing an ideal as, once a year, coming together with family and friends, and giving thanks for the productive work which has graced our lives together?

Note also that the nationalization and specification of this communal sense of historical thankfulness (however politically “invented” some may claim it to be), by invariably involving itself in larger processes both political and economic, created conditions through which certain virtues–certainly familiar ones, and perhaps in even civic ones–were promoted and allowed to grow distinctive, sheltered from the intrusions of the homogenizing marketplace and rival polities. Something as humble (though, for most of us, absolutely central to the holiday, even more than flag-football games at the local park) as the “traditional” foods we generally eat during the holiday are themselves an evolved expression of a particularly American sensibility–a middle-class, landowning, frugal, and community-sustaining one–which Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation gave conceptual room to, implicitly challenging alternative (and aristocratic) norms which still held sway in the dining rooms of many of the nation’s elites in the 19th century. And, of course, the patterns of employment and commerce which developed around the holiday, enabled by national uniformity, were a large part of preserving its traditional and meaning-filled character as well. (There’s plenty of time to feel obliged to find some sort of connection with your friends and family and your shared past when the stores are closed and everyone is home from work.) Now those patterns are collapsing right and left, with relatively few exceptions (and with some market libertarians, predictably, rebuking those of us who denounce this change as “puritanical, anti-commerce prudes” and instead cheering on “the growth in 24/7 shopping”). Very likely any talk of a legislative response to this deplorable development is a non-starter–but whether that is because the popular religious meaning that the holiday enables us to creatively recollect and formalize in our civil lives is exhausted, or because the state which proclaimed the holiday (and by which our many local communities have situated their own recollections of gratitude) is held in contempt by a large portion of the population, is not for me to say. Very likely, both.

Still, let me end on a thankful note: despite the corporate bosses that see it merely as another day to dangle sales in front of a cash-strapped and status-obsessed populace, Thanksgiving still exists, and my American family, at least, along with some friends old and new, from church and elsewhere, still all agree that its a fine day on which to commemorate and share and remember, with turkey and pie and games and laughter and perhaps even a prayer or two. My thanks on this holiday are for all those who have blessed my life. By doing his part, 150 years ago, to impress upon part of my national identity (along with much else that I will happily argue against) something as fine as a reminder to be, in my particular place, grateful to God above…well, I have to say that Lincoln is one of those.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar robert m. peters November 29, 2013 at 10:03 am

Here is George Washington’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, issued 03 October 1789:

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/GW/gw004.html

Here is a link to Jefferson Davis’ Proclamations in 1861 and 1862:

http://genebrooks.blogspot.com/2007/11/jefferson-davis-1861-1862-thanksgiving.html

Here’s a link to the first English Thanksgiving on what would become American soil, namely Jamestown.

Our Thanksgiving has many antecedents, some going back to Europe. We should remember them all and remember Whom we are to thank, for a tradition without essence is a whited sepulcher, the crumbling ectoskeleton of a long departed locust.

avatar robert m. peters November 29, 2013 at 10:03 am
avatar Russell Arben Fox November 29, 2013 at 10:35 am

Robert,

Thanks for the additional links! Washington’s Thanksgiving declaration was obviously and important one (indeed, Lincoln issued his own declaration on the same date as Washington’s, as a commemoration of it), but didn’t initiate any formal tradition; subsequent presidents and governors throughout the growing country did or didn’t issue declarations as seemed to them (or their constituencies) appropriate. And Davis’s also, for obvious reasons, didn’t formalize anything lasting, especially as the victorious union continued to expand westward and economically nationalize in the decades which followed. So I think the connection to Lincoln remains primary (at least insofar as the formalization of the holiday is concerned). But as for your final sentence–”We should remember them all and remember Whom we are to thank, for a tradition without essence is a whited sepulcher, the crumbling ectoskeleton of a long departed locust–I couldn’t agree more….though don’t forget that “essence” is something which we all, in our subjectivity, have to re-discover and make our own, again and again and again. Remember the lines from Goethe’s Faust:

What from your fathers you received as heir,
Acquire anew if you would possess it.
What is not used is but a load to bear;
But if today creates it, we can use and bless it.

avatar robert m. peters November 29, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Mr. Fox,

Thank you for your gracious and most thoughtful reply.

Goethe has been an intellectual companion of mine since the summer of 1966 when I first encountered him in German. I still return to him for intellectual counsel from time to time; however, he was never able to emancipate himself from the Enlightenment although in his early Sturm und Drang period, he seemed to but was actually exploring its dark side. I have spent much of my adulthood emancipating myself from the abstractions of the Enlightenment, the precepts of Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes and Hume having been infused into my very being through formal education which began at an early age.

The quote which you give, so rendered into English, is fraught with irony, particularly if you read it in German.

“Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, // erwirb es, um es zu besitzen. // Was man nicht nützt, ist eine schwere Last; // Nur was der Augenblick erschafft, das kann er nützen.” – Vers 682 ff. / Faust

Goethe says to struggle for that which is your fathers’ legacy in order to possesses it. That which you do not use is a burden. Only the moment creates is useful or useable.

When one counterposes that line with the following one gets a clearer picture:

“Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren; // Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.” – Vers 73 f. / Dichter

That which shines is born for the moment. The real is remains lost to posterity.

Goethe places the latter quote in the mouth of the poet in Chapter II. The words you quote are the words of Faust, and the words of Faust are loaded with irony and duplicity.

Read in counterpose to the poet, the irony of Faust’s words become clearer; they call for a very utilitarian use of tradition, use in the moment; whereas the poet suggests that that which is of the moment, the gleaming, remains hidden to posterity.

No, that which is worthy in tradition is not subjective if by that you mean a product of the mind of a given person or generation but is that within a tradition which is the essence of the Eternal if one has still has the intellectual and spiritual capacity to apprehend, comprehend, understand and live it out.

Thank you for sending me back to my old friend Goethe. We have not chewed the fat in a long time.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 29, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Robert,

Read in counterpose to the poet, the irony of Faust’s words become clearer; they call for a very utilitarian use of tradition, use in the moment; whereas the poet suggests that that which is of the moment, the gleaming, remains hidden to posterity….That which is worthy in tradition is not subjective if by that you mean a product of the mind of a given person or generation but is that within a tradition which is the essence of the Eternal if one has still has the intellectual and spiritual capacity to apprehend, comprehend, understand and live it out.

An interesting reading, Robert, and I’ll happily grant your greater familiarity with both the story and with German by which it is conveyed. But, for the moment, I’m going to rest content with my own interpretation of those passages, in which Faust and the poet are not speaking in counterpoint to each other, but rather are expressing a similar point from different perspectives. I confess myself to be thoroughly indebted to the early German Romantics here, particularly Johann Gottfried Herder (whose long relationship with Goethe is worth a story of its own!); the Eternal is made immanent to ourselves only through our own (inevitably historical and cultural) interpretive, poetic language and work, moment to moment. Thus, the truth and virtue which any tradition may convey to us becomes our own only through our own subjective attendance to it. This doesn’t, I think, dilute the truth of holidays; on the contrary, it deepens them, making them more truthful–more real–for more people as our experiences of remembering and retrieval continue ever onward.

avatar robert m. peters November 29, 2013 at 8:04 pm

A holy day (holiday) is a sacred time. A Church is a sacred place. The Eucharist is a sacred act. In a scared time, at a sacred place and with a sacred act, man who is created in God’s image, although fallen with, however, the potential of redemption, and our Lord meet and act together, man in his divinely granted agency and God in His providence, all a mystery, whereby God shows His love, therein is embodied Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and man receives in dim apprehension the gifts which are imparted, these goes beyond mere memory and the contemplation of memory, which is sweet and which is part of our unique creaturhood as humans, made in God’s image, it goes to communion, in the deepest sense, with our Other who is our Creator.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins December 3, 2013 at 11:51 pm

It is worthy of note that Gov. Brown of Georgia conspicuously counter-manded Jefferson Davis’s proclamation, then made his own proclamation for a different date in November, observing that he had not emarked upon rebellion to allow a confederate government to usurp his prerogative as governor of a state to proclaim a day of Thanksgiving when he saw fit, not on some nationally standarized day proclaimed by thye president.

One thing that made Americans one people, and indeed brought Thanksgiving to the point of near universality among us, is that for most of our history, before as well as after the Civil War, people migrated from older states to newer states, from southern to northern and northern to southern states. Some families were part of several different state constitutional conventions over the course of the 19th century. Every place they settled, people came to love the locality they were building, but often loved moving on to construct another locality to love. The state of Wyoming was named for a valley in Pennsylvania.

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