The American Spirit of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is the best example of the confluence between America’s pioneering spirit and our national penchant for thankfulness.

Thanksgiving is perhaps the quintessential American holiday; we have feasting, we have football, we have family and friends, and we have gratitude. The last line item on that list may seem odd to associate with ‘Americanness’ as much as the others, but it fits in just fine. In fact, it is deeply embedded in American history, dating back to the colonial era, before the founding of the United States. The strong focus on thankfulness – to the point of dedicating a whole holiday to it – is peculiarly American, but can feel at odds with the classic stereotype of Americans as self-absorbed and entitled. In this case, the stereotype is dead wrong; gratitude is an American tradition that dovetails perfectly with our historic national culture of self-reliance, risk-seeking, and innovation.

The American ethos of thankfulness is just as rooted in our history as is the pioneering spirit and willingness to accept risks in search of a better life. The very first European settlers in what became the United States came here with nothing but what they could carry with them across the stormy Atlantic towards – what was, for them – the great unknown. These colonists – whether they were French fur traders, Dutch merchant-adventurers, Spanish Jesuits, or the English Puritans we associate with Thanksgiving – all took unbelievable risks in leaving their whole world behind to journey into a land as full of promise as it was danger. They wagered their lives on the seaworthiness of their ships, the skill of their crews, and their luck with the weather. They gambled it all on where to land their vessels and disembark, where to set up initial settlements, how to gather crucial resources necessary to sustain life, and how they dealt with the Native inhabitants with whom they interacted. These choices and chances determined whether their settlement would survive, thrive, or fail before the first winter was out.

None of this was predetermined (even if the settlers themselves believed it was), and the successes always came with immense gratitude. Oftentimes, the first act of a successful landing party would be to kiss or bless the ground they set foot on, and thank God for their safe travel to what they saw as the promised land. Existing journals and records from as far back as the 1600s attest to a strong tradition of gratefulness in the American spirit, intertwined with the taking of risks that was inherent to early American life. For instance, Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop declared a “day of thanksgiving” in July 1630 to commemorate the safe passage of several colonist-laden ships from England. The first Thanksgiving we all learned about in school, whatever else it may have been, was certainly a feast of thanks for the harvest which the Plymouth settlers reaped that season. Without such a harvest, the settlement would have been likely to fail over the harsh New England winter. Those messages of thanks were not merely New England Puritan sentiments, but extended across the nascent American colonies, as large numbers of colonists hazarded the treacherous voyage, set up homesteads on the land, and attempted to survive on nothing but their wits, work, and wisdom.

The connection between risk-seeking and thankfulness was obvious in the founding of our country. It was an incredible risk to revolt in the hopes of breaking off from the most powerful global empire in existence – a risk that the Founders were well aware of. The profound gratitude of the American people for their success in the Revolution and in the founding of a national government underwritten by the Constitution was commemorated by President George Washington in 1789, when he declared:

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 tranquility, 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.

American Patriots put their lives and livelihoods on the line, without any outside aid, for several years before the French joined the fray, seeking to blacken the eye of their British nemesis. The gratitude our nation felt towards the French continues to this day and is reflected in the widespread use of the name ‘Lafayette’ for towns, streets, and institutions. One of the main arguments for the American entrance into World War I was indeed to help our fellow republic safeguard its liberties against tyranny, paying back the aid we received in 1778. The graves of American servicemen across the battlefields of France, in both World Wars, is a testament to that thankfulness and the ethic of risk-taking that goes with it.

A WWI-era advertisement seeking support for the French cause in the war by invoking America’s historical debt to that nation for our very independence.

Gratitude’s link with an American culture of pioneerism continued as the young nation expanded over the Appalachians, across the Mississippi, through the Rockies, and to the Pacific coast. The settlers who ventured across the wild expanses of the American continent were faced with similar challenges as their pioneering forebears who sailed the Atlantic in search of a better life. Those homesteaders were just as thankful as the Puritans were for their successful harvests and safe travels, but were also grateful for their individual liberty and the chance to pursue happiness in the manner they saw fit. Happiness was not the only pursuit that drove the push West; profit was just as important to many. This entrepreneurial spirit was reflected by the miners who rushed west to strike gold in California in the mid-1800s. They took the risk of moving to a new land to pursue a claim in the hopes of earning enough to secure their family’s well-being. This end was a dream for many, one for which they would be extremely thankful. This is displayed, for example, in ‘The Miner’s Ten Commandments’, published in California in 1853. The linkage between individual liberty, entrepreneurial success, and gratitude was discussed by the 19th century philanthropist and magnate Andrew Carnegie (himself an immigrant from Scotland), who wrote in his 1889 essay titled “Wealth” that:

Poor and restricted are our opportunities in this life; narrow our horizon; our best work most imperfect; but rich men should be thankful for one inestimable boon. They have it in their power during their lives to busy themselves in organizing benefactions from which the masses of their fellows will derive lasting advantage, and thus dignify their own lives. The highest life is probably to be reached, not by such imitation of the life of Christ as Count Tolstoi gives us, but, while animated by Christ’s spirit, by recognizing the changed conditions of this age, and adopting modes of expressing this spirit suitable to the changed conditions under which we live; still laboring for the good of our fellows, which was the essence of his life and teaching, but laboring in a different manner.

Carnegie’s idea was that the rich man’s gratefulness for his wealth (often gained from risk-seeking entrepreneurship promoted by personal freedom) should come with a duty to support his fellow man and help him earn a better life. Carnegie lived that ideal, donating massive amounts of money to charitable institutions, endowing hospitals and universities, building libraries across the globe, and promoting the arts.

Later waves of immigrants would take significant risks coming to the United States, where they saw the promise of ‘streets paved with gold’ and personal freedom, but also the challenge of making one’s way in a foreign land in which they knew little, had few (if any) connections, and had no knowledge of English. These immigrants were often poor laborers who had little in the way of economic potential in their homelands and sought a new life of liberty and prosperity in America. My own family is an example of this, coming from northern Italy to New York City in the 1920s with the hope of a better future. They worked hard, often in blue-collar jobs in restaurants or factories, but were grateful for the opportunities they had and the chance to succeed. Those stories continue to this day, with immigrants fleeing persecution, war, famine, or poverty to reach their version of paradise. We’ve had waves of these risk-seeking migrants, initially from Europe, but branching out to Asia, Latin America, and Africa over the past decades. Each wave has brought a new group of pioneering, entrepreneurial folks to the United States, enriching our culture and economy, and revitalizing that tradition of thankfulness for the very fact of America.

Our unique liberties, risk-tolerant national ethos, and spirit of gratitude are inextricably bound together in the history of our nation. Our freedom includes the liberty to take risks of our choosing, to fail or to succeed, and to be grateful for the opportunity. That choice is what makes America so special, and is one of the reasons why I am so thankful to be an American. Not everyone values this ethos or has the same gratitude for our country, however. Unfortunately, it seems as though these negative attitudes are increasing, especially among younger generations (of which I am a part). This decline in the perceived value of liberty – and the risk-taking that it allows – in favor of security has coincided with a fall in thankfulness for the United States and our modern prosperity. Despite a standard of living that has only increased over the lifespan of our nation, our society is becoming less grateful seemingly annually. We need to regenerate all three of those interlocking values – freedom, a pioneering spirit, and gratitude – if we wish to have a healthy and dynamic society moving forward through the next American century. Thanksgiving is a wonderfully traditional place to start that quest of revitalization. I, for one, am grateful for the chance to try.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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