The first national Thanksgiving Day in North America was proclaimed by Henry Laurens, the fourth president of the United States. Buoyed by the British surrender at Saratoga in October of 1777, Laurens declared a day of "Thanksgiving and Praise," free from labor and full of penitence. "Recreation," though at "other times innocent," was to be avoided on "so solemn an occasion."
During the Revolutionary War, many of those who succeeded Laurens as the president of the Continental Congress of the United States followed suit. They thanked the "Great Benefactor" for sending the French to the rescue, and foretold of "seminaries and schools." Soon after the nation ratified its constitution, George Washington set aside a day to give thanks, to fast, and to pray for the "encrease of science." By 1814 James Madison used Thanksgiving to extol the "progress of the arts."
All this makes Thanksgiving sound like a good day to celebrate the liberal arts. It's always been my favorite holiday, partly because recreation is back in the picture (and fasting is not). Admittedly, our modern Thanksgiving can be dominated by football and feasts, and presidential proclamations usually overdo the political chauvism. But after sampling two centuries of Thanksgiving declarations and addresses, I am not sure there is an American day—civil or ecclesiastical—where human liberty, religious freedom and just relations have been so strongly linked with the cultivation of learning. Or a civic tradition that so consistently evokes the disciplines of our faith—prayer, forgiveness, humility, gratitude and service.
This report comes with appreciation for the scholarly energy of our colleagues and gratitude for the good work still before us. I hope your long holiday weekend is restful and reinvigorating.