J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Washington’s First Proclamation and More in Boston Today

Today only, the historic document dealer Seth Kaller is displaying a handwritten proclamation signed by President George Washington at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. This visibility is part of the document’s tour prior to being auctioned off at Christie’s in New York on 14 November.

This proclamation, issued on 3 Oct 1789, set the following 26 November as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” as Congress had requested. This document wasn’t just the first Thanksgiving proclamation to come out of the President’s office. It was the first proclamation of any kind.

In issuing this public message, Congress and President Washington went beyond how the Constitution defined his powers. That founding document says nothing about proclamations or what legal force they might carry. But colonial governors (both appointed and elected) had exercised that prerogative for decades, so it was probably within what most people conceived of as normal executive power.

As Harlow Giles Unger recently wrote on H.N.N., by the end of his Presidency Washington was using his implicit proclamation power much more expansively, declaring U.S. neutrality in the war between Britain and France. Our system has come to recognize the force of such proclamations from the executive branch regardless of the constitutional silence.

In fact, the tradition of Presidential proclamations has a longer unbroken run than the tradition of Presidential proclamations about Thanksgiving. Thomas Jefferson chose not to issue such exhortations, as he explained to the Rev. Samuel Miller on 23 Jan 1808:
I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. . . .

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
President Jefferson thus left open the possibility of the states issuing such proclamations, and as governor of Virginia he had pushed the legislature for a day of thanksgiving in 1779. At the time, the state was in fear of attack by British forces, and he might have wanted all the help he could get. Significantly, James Madison broke with his mentor’s approach and issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1814, during another war. And the next President to do so was Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

I’m not sure how the Washington proclamation is being displayed at the M.H.S. today. The society’s own exhibit right now is “The Cabinet and the Carver,” part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture events, so there are surely lovely tables and desks to picture the document on.

In addition, up Boylston Street from the M.H.S. this evening, the Boston Public Library is hosting a talk by Maureen Taylor on finding photographs of Revolutionary veterans and assembling them into books and a film under the umbrella title The Last Muster. Taylor’s talk begins at 6:00, and is free and open to the public.

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