We all learned in elementary school that the American holiday known as “Thanksgiving” has its roots in the Pilgrims’ survival of their first winter in the New World and successful harvest in 1621. They celebrated with a community meal, joined by local Native Americans. Names like Plymouth, Miles Standish, Squanto and Massasoit are familiar parts of the story. Although there is no historical evidence the Pilgrims actually “gave thanks” in prayer for the meal, the entire event, framed in our history by the nature of the Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom, has become an enduring symbol for generations of thankful Americans.
Yet, Thanksgiving is more than harvests, family dinners, and celebrations of the Pilgrims’ triumph over hardship. Indeed, Thanksgiving is also associated with the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and God’s sovereign role in overseeing the founding — and survival — of the then-young nation.
In 1789, the nascent country was off to a fresh start. The Constitution, drafted at a convention two years earlier in Philadelphia, had been ratified by 11 states, and the first Congress sat down to begin the business of legislating. Many of the states that had ratified the Constitution had requested amendments guaranteeing the freedoms they had all fought for in the war for independence from England, and the new Congress worked through the summer to create that document. By the end of September of that year, Congress finished a draft of twelve* amendments, which were delivered to President George Washington with a request to submit them to the states for ratification.