The Thanksgiving Address America Needs to Hear

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in our angry and divided country, let us travel back 150 years, to the Thanksgiving of 1868, a time when the country was far angrier and more divided. Just three years had passed since the end of the Civil War, and resentments still smoldered. The Pulaski Riot in Tennessee and the Camilla Massacre in Georgia were fresh in the nation’s memory. In the victorious North, meanwhile, anti-immigrant sentiment was rising.

That’s what makes the Thanksgiving address of a certain Dr. Marcus Jastrow,  rabbi of Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom, so extraordinary. His stirring message still resonates, and if we take it seriously, we will be the better for it.

Jastrow took as his text the 100th Psalm, which he interpreted as a call for national unity:

The principle of freedom and equality to all, the principle on which American institutions are based, calls upon every American to obliterate all differences, both political as well as religious, at the moment of celebrating a national idea.

These were bold words at so fraught a moment. Ulysses S. Grant had just been elected president, but some Democratic critics considered his victory illegitimate. Although Grant won a landslide in the Electoral College, the popular vote was close. Some whispered that the outcome would have been different had more Southern whites, disfranchised since the war, been permitted to vote. The Democratic convention had tried to capitalize on this sentiment by prominently featuring an openly racist slogan: “This is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.”

Nativism was rampant throughout the land, and John W. Geary, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, was attempting to capitalize on it — an effort that, in Jastrow’s opinion, would lead toward a greater disunity. Geary had recently issued the traditional Thanksgiving proclamation, but in distinctively Christian terms. He was a supporter of the National Reform Association, whose central goal was the addition of what was called the “Christian amendment” to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.  

To this platform Jastrow offered a sharp riposte. “The chief magistrate of our state, has torn down the banner of American freedom and equality,” he warned. He reminded the congregation that the task of the governor, as an elected official, was to protect the rights “not of a majority, not of a party, not of a sect, but of all citizens, all portions of the people.”

Jastrow, of course, was speaking of religion; but imagine that he spoke instead of ideology, or partisanship. The message would be the same, for those on both sides of the political divide: Elected officials should not be in the business of simply advancing party interests. To be sure, that somewhat Burkean horse has long ago sped free of the barn; but the reminder is still valuable.

Geary was appealing to the anti-immigrant sentiment of the day, which characterized Jews and Catholics as anti-American — principally because they were not Protestants. To this challenge, too, Jastrow had a sharp answer:

Before God, the Creator of us all, there is no difference between man and man, and so it ought to be among mankind. You have no right to establish a discrimination between the children of the same Father – you have no right to assign the country to one faith or one sect, for it is God that made us; it is He that made this nation and enabled it to erect its government of freedom.

These words, too, ought to resonate with us, at a time when hate crime levels remain alarmingly high.

It’s not just hate crimes. It’s hateful rhetoric. I wish the rhetoric came from only one side. The truth is, however, that much of our unreasonably incessant political chatter is characterized by hatred of those who have a different view. Our era is nothing like the one that generated the Civil War — please don’t fall for that rhetoric! — but disunity seems nevertheless our fate. The most partisan among us seem to believe that they have nothing in common with those with whom they disagree.

On this point, too, Jastrow’s argument is worth quoting at length:

Therefore, remember thy origin, O! American people, remember that it was the banner of freedom and equality to all, inscribed with the idea that the Creator has made all men equal and endowed them with inalienable rights, remember that it was the banner of freedom and equality to all under which God gave thee victory and success! Be cautious and never change this universal banner into an exclusive one!

One need not be a religious believer (or for that matter approve of the use of “man” in such a context) to see the point: The nation should never be allowed to become the exclusive preserve of those of a single religion, ideology, or party.

And then there’s this:

Remember that we are all His people and the flock of His pasture; and all who dwell on the fields of this country have the same rights to its rich pasture, consisting not alone in the material food it gives to its inhabitants, but far more in the sweet satisfaction and happiness of mind, which this great country with its free institutions offers to the poorest as well as to the richest of its children, to the exclusion of none.

That’s the phrase we should perhaps remember the best: “to the exclusion of none.” As we gather around the table with family and friends a century and a half after Jastrow’s wise words, let’s try to remember that we’re a nation of everybody.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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