Friday, January 9, 2009

John Hanson, Historical Myths, and Thanksgiving Proclamations

History and popular culture seem to regularly clash these days. Whether in the form of a Hollywood film, a fictional novel or a television series, popular culture's depiction of historical events is often anything but historical. Mel Gibson's depiction of William Wallace in Braveheart, along with his film The Patriot are a textbook example of how history can and is often twisted to make for a more entertaining story.

Such is the case with John Hanson. In recent years, John Hanson has been the target of a number of ridiculous historical claims. For example, many today insist that Hanson was African American. This charge comes from the fact that Hanson's grandfather was an indentured servant, whose services were sold from one farm to another. As a result, a small number of people have jumped to the conclusion that Hanson must have been Black, since, after all, he was sold. However, they neglect to recognize that indentured servants were often "sold" as well.

In addition, Hanson's service as the first president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation has caused some to seek for his recognition in the history books as our nation's first president. Technically speaking, their case makes sense. After all, Hanson was the first president of the United States, but it was not the United States as established by the Constitution. In fact, Hanson was a staunch anti-federalist who campaigned AGAINST the passage of the Constitution.

And while it is unlikely that Hanson will ever be recognized as America's first president, his legacy is not void of significant contributions. For example, Hanson passed legislation for America's first central bank, established the U.S. mint, called for the first national census, and created the position of Chairman of Congress, which was the predecessor to the vice-presidency.

In addition to these contributions, John Hanson was the first president to call for a national day of thanksgiving. His proclamation read as follows:

It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for His gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner, to give Him praise for His goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of His Providence in their behalf; therefore, the Unites States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged, - the present happy and promising state of public affairs, and the events of the war in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils which is so necessary to the success of the public cause, - the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them, - the success of the arms of the United States and those of their allies, - and the acknowledgment of their Independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States; Do hereby recommend it to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe and request the several states to interpose their authority, in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the TWENTY-EIGHTH DAY OF NOVEMBER next as a day of SOLEMN THANKSGIVING to GOD for all His mercies; and they do further recommend to all ranks to testify their gratitude to God for His goodness by a cheerful obedience to His laws and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.
A Lutheran, Hanson's Thanksgiving proclamation seems typical of his day. He invokes the blessings of "Almighty God" upon the infant nation and the cause of independence. In fact, it is interesting to note just how similar it is to Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, which also beseeches the blessings of "Providence" upon the newly established American republic:

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation – for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war –for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed – for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
Both Hanson and Washington's proclamations carry the same petition. They ask the people to recognize the hand of God -- without giving any specifics as to which God they meant -- in the formation, protection and future prosperity of the United States. In this sense, "God" is neutral and all-encompassing, which supports both Benjamin Franklin's concept of a "public religion" for the United States and Jefferson's belief in the "God of Nature." Both are all-encompassing terms that could apply to any religion of their day.

And while both Hanson and Washington's proclamations take a noticeably neutral stance on God, John Adams' proclamation of 1798 leaves no doubt as to which god is to be invoked:

I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction; that it be made the subject of particular and earnest supplication that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it; that our civil and religious privileges may be preserved inviolate and perpetuated to the latest generations; that our public councils and magistrates may be especially enlightened and directed at this critical period; that the American people may be united in those bonds of amity and mutual confidence and inspired with that vigor and fortitude by which they have in times past been so highly distinguished and by which they have obtained such invaluable advantages; that the health of the inhabitants of our land may be preserved, and their agriculture, commerce, fisheries, arts, and manufactures be blessed and prospered; that the principles of genuine piety and sound morality may influence the minds and govern the lives of every description of our citizens and that the blessings of peace, freedom, and pure religion may be speedily extended to all the nations of the earth[my emphasis].
And though he never comes out and says it, Adams' invocation of the "Father of Mercies," and "Redeemer of the World" make his intentions clear. Adams' proclamation is clearly a petition to the Christian God -- whether orthodox or non-orthodox -- for His blessings upon a nation.

So what are we to make of these proclamations? Can they even be taken as evidence of a person's particular creed, or are they simply political in nature? Ralph Ketcham, author of the biography, James Madison argues that these are political documents with little to no actual religious "meat." He writes:

Madison's singular motivation behind his Thanksgiving Proclamations of 1814 and 1815 was to use religion for his political advantage...The less-than-successful management of the War of 1812 had turned popular support against the president...Wisely Madison put the blame for America's misfortune during the war on God rather than his presidency.
And while there is arguably a great deal of truth to Kecham's assertion, this does not suggest that Hanson, Washington, or Adams were also insincere in their respective proclamations. In addition, if Thanksgiving proclamations really were that politically advantageous, why did Jefferson never issue one? Of all the early presidents, Jefferson could have benefited more from declaring God's blessings in a presidential proclamation than anyone.

Maybe the answer to this question is...BOTH. Presidential/Thanksgiving proclamations should be seen as both political tools AND as evidence of a president's personal religious leanings. Or maybe this is the centrist in me trying to make sense of the senseless!

5 comments:

Pinky said...

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I have learned something today.
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Thank you, Mr. Rowe!
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Brad Hart said...

Actually I wrote this, Pinky, but I am flattered that you think it was Jon's work. Maybe I am doing something right after all!

Pinky said...

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My apologies.
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And, thank you very much for posting this unbiased article.

You sure are doing it right as far as I am concerned..

John Cummings said...

Brad,
I enjoyed your post - keep up the great work! I just wondered where you found information that John Hanson was against the passage of the constitution? He was all for the original constitution provided that the federalism was in place to form a centralized government to control all of the new states - before he would sign it. If you are talking about todays adopted constitution, John hanson passed away many years before it was proposed. All the best, John J. Cummings

Colette Bebee Merchant said...

Brad Hart, thank you for writing this informative accurate account of our Founding Fathers,and First Presidents words of their strong faith.People today ignore those facts! My 5th great paternal grandfather was John Hanson,thank you for addressing the myths being perpetrated,repeated about him!Lots of white people came over as indentured slaves. White people where slaves before Africans were used as slaves. In America and other countries. I also had never read John Hanson's exact words on the creation of Thanksgiving Day, that blesses my heart to know he had a strong faith in the Lord! God Bless You and May God Save America!