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Thanksgiving-BrownscombeBy long custom at St. John’s College, the president invites to Thanksgiving dinner all our international students, as well as any other students and faculty who are spending Thanksgiving away from home and family.

After the events of September 11, 2001, we added a series of readings to the tradition. Before we sit down to a home-cooked turkey dinner with all the fixings, some 50 of us gather in a circle to reflect on the origins and nature of this essentially American holiday. We read passages from our founding documents, lines from inspirational poems, and snippets of prose, both serious and humorous. And we also sing a song or two, including “America the Beautiful,” the second verse of which contains these lines:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul
In self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
Imagine: our nation places its hopes for perfectibility in self-control and freedom under law rather than leaving progress up to unrestrained personal license. We don’t hear that message often enough today.

And these few lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass always hit home with me:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be, blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belong to him or her and to none else…
What an image—the entire nation singing its common life in chorus through the daily work that belongs uniquely to each individual!

And these words of Tocqueville’s, eulogizing America’s fundamental optimism and drive toward progress:

The American lives in a land of wonders; everything around him is in constant movement, and every movement seems an advance. . . . Nowhere does he see any limit placed by nature to human endeavor; in his eyes something which does not exist is just something that has not been tried yet.

And finally, these lines from Emma Lazarus’s poem that speak so movingly to our international students:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving Day, we at St. John’s College send you our best wishes, and we join with you in giving thanks on this most American of holidays.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the author. 

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Published: Nov 27, 2014
Christopher Nelson
Christopher B. Nelson is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He is president of St. John's College in Annapolis. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Students and faculty engage directly -- not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion -- with original texts and ideas that are the foundation of Western thought.
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