FDR at Hyde Park

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shown here working on a speech in 1938, put considerable effort into his annual Thanksgiving proclamations. Also shown here are, from left, secretaries Marguerite Lehand, Marvin McIntyre and Grace Tully.

President Donald Trump marked Thanksgiving last year with an announcement that he is thankful for himself. Asked by a reporter what filled him with gratitude, he announced that he was thankful “for having made a tremendous difference in this country.” Unfortunately, he did not stop there.

“I’ve made a tremendous difference in the country. This country is so much stronger now than it was when I took office that you wouldn't believe it,” said Trump. “I mean, you see, but so much stronger people can’t even believe it. When I see foreign leaders they say we cannot believe the difference in strength between the United States now and the United States two years ago. Made a lot of progress.”

Statements like that go a long way toward explaining why so many Americans are thankful this year for the impeachment clauses in the U.S. Constitution.

Now, in fairness to Trump, he has offered up rather more traditional Thanksgiving proclamations since assuming the presidency. But he doesn’t go much beyond the predictable recitation of the story of the first Thanksgiving and a rumination on “the virtue of gratitude.”

Contrast that with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who mastered the art of giving thanks.

FDR recognized the annual production of the Thanksgiving proclamation as much more than a perfunctory task. Each of the 32nd president’s dozen proclamations was unique, and as his tenure progressed, Roosevelt used them to express the values of the New Deal and the internationalist struggle against fascism.

Roosevelt broke what for his time was new ground with his statements, using them to teach about religious diversity and to decry racial and ethnic divisions. As an example, Roosevelt’s proclamation for Thanksgiving Day 1941 appealed for “the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice …”

But the 32nd president’s most persistent theme in his Thanksgiving proclamations was the need to develop a new economic order.

Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving proclamation, penned in the depths of the Great Depression, declared:

“May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.

“May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.”

Here was a president seeking not to deny economic turbulence but to offer a vision for responding to that turbulence as united citizenry rather than as isolated individuals.

This message was a constant for Roosevelt as he implemented the New Deal.

“During the past year we have been given courage and fortitude to meet the problems which have confronted us in our national life. Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality,” he wrote in his 1934 proclamation. “More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.’ With gratitude in our hearts for what has already been achieved, may we, with the help of God, dedicate ourselves anew to work for the betterment of mankind.”

A year later, concerned by the rise of European fascism, Roosevelt was at his most poetic, writing:

“In traversing a period of national stress our country has been knit together in a closer fellowship of mutual interest and common purpose. We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself. We can be grateful that peace at home is strengthened by our growing willingness to common counsel. We can be grateful that our peace with other nations continues through recognition of our peaceful purpose.”

“But,” he continued, “in our appreciation of the blessings that Divine Providence has bestowed upon us in America, we shall not rejoice as the Pharisee rejoiced. War and strife still live in the world. Rather must America by example and in practice help to bind the wounds of others, strive against disorder and aggression, encourage the lessening of distrust among peoples, and advance peaceful trade and friendship. The future of many generations of mankind will be greatly guided by our acts in these present years. We hew a new trail.”

Having a president recognize and encourage the hewing of that new trail, especially one that heads toward economic and social justice, may be controversial. But this is the right kind of controversy — as opposed to the “thankful for myself” kind.

So this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And for the prospect that a new New Deal — a green one – might be the result of an election that is now less than a year off.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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