Verbatim: Byrd Dishes Up a Tableful of Thanksgiving Memories

Posted November 25, 2003 at 8:42am

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) took a few minutes of the chamber’s busy schedule last week to recall the history of Thanksgiving and his wife Erma’s cranberry sauce, among other things. His comments:

Mr. President, Thanksgiving is one of the oldest and most cherished American holidays. Along with the Fourth of July, it is a uniquely American holiday. I realize that other countries and other cultures have their days of feasts, some even have them in autumn to glorify their harvests. But our Thanksgiving, our day of thanks, is a truly American holiday.

Thanksgiving is our special day. It is a day on which we celebrate with turkey, gravy, dressing, cranberry sauce. You should try Erma’s cranberry sauce; there is nothing like it anywhere in the world, my wife’s cranberry sauce. Just to think of it, just to think of it makes me want to go home now — cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie.

In addition to being a time of family togetherness, it is a day of football games, parades, and the beginning of the Christmas holiday season — a little early for the Christmas holiday season, but that is the way it is in this commercial time in which we live.

But more profoundly, Thanksgiving is a day for recognizing and celebrating our Pilgrim heritage — that small group of men and women who left their homeland, crossed a mighty ocean, and settled in a wilderness so that they could worship God as they chose.

Before disembarking from the ship that brought them to these lands, the famous and legendary Mayflower, this gallant group of early American settlers gathered together and they formulated a government for their new world — a government based on the principle of self-rule. It was also a government under God — a government under God. The document that created that new government, the Mayflower Compact — we should have on our office walls. That government was anticipated in the Mayflower Compact. The Compact read in part:

“In the name of God, amen, we whose names are underwritten … Having undertaken for the Glory of God … Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politik. …”

A year after landing — after months of privation, suffering, sickness, hunger and death — these men and women set aside time to express their gratitude to God for protecting them and for the preservation of their community. With all the hardships and agony they had endured, they still set aside time to thank God for being good to them. They were not only men and women of great courage, they were also men and women of great religious faith.

Two years later, in 1623, the Pilgrims made this day of thanks a tradition. The spirit of that glorious day, which some people recognize as the first official Thanksgiving, was captured in a proclamation attributed to Governor Bradford that read:

“Inasmuch as the Great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, squashes and garden vegetables, and made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has … spared us from the pestilence and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of nine and twelve in the daytime on Thursday, November ye 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye all Almighty God for all his blessings.”

The tradition of Thanksgiving was reaffirmed again during the American Revolution. Following the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, the American victory that marked a crucial turning point in the war and the birth of our nation, the Continental Congress approved a resolution designating a day of “Thanksgiving and praise.” George Washington wrote of the day set apart — these are words I quoted — the “day set apart by the honorable Congress for Public Thanksgiving and praise, and duty calling us to devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgments to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us.”

This was George Washington, the Father of our country, commander of the American forces at Valley Forge — George Washington, the first president of the United States, the greatest of all presidents of these United States — who said in part when he wrote of the “day set apart by the honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and praise, and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgments to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us.”

That was George Washington.

Following the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress used Thanksgiving as the day to give thanks to the proper authority for delivering the country from colonization and war into independence and peace.

These were our forefathers — George Washington, of whom there is none greater — nay, of whom there is no peer, George Washington.

On Oct. 11, 1782, Congress proclaimed “the twenty-eight day of November next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING to God for all his mercies: and they do further recommend to all ranks, to testify to their gratitude to God for his goodness.”

The proclamation further stated:

“It being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplication to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf.”

Following the establishment of the new government of the United States in 1789, President George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation calling for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He asked that the public observe that day “by acknowledging with grateful heart the many favors of Almighty God.” At President Washington’s request, Americans assembled in churches on the appointed day and thanked God for his blessings.

Then during the awful Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln officially asked the people of the United States to set aside the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” “In the midst of a civil war of unequal magnitude and severity,” President Lincoln proclaimed in 1863 that the country should take a day to acknowledge the gracious gifts of the most high God.

Perhaps we have noticed that in every one of these proclamations, the Founders and the early leaders of our country carefully and purposefully recognized and thanked Almighty God for their blessings.

So in a year when we have been told that it is wrong to post the Ten Commandments in our courthouses, it is well to remember how the Founders of our country, going back to the pilgrims, continuing through the Continental Congresses and our foremost presidents, Washington and Lincoln, certainly considered ours to be a nation under God.

I was a Member of the House of Representatives on June 7, 1954, when the House voted to insert the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. That was June 7, 1954. I was a Member of the House one year from that day, perhaps just coincidentally, when the House voted to place the words “In God We Trust” on the currency and coins of these United States. June 7, 1955, that was.

There you have it, June 7, 1954, the words “under God” were inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance, and one year from that day, June 7, 1955, they put the words “In God We Trust” on the currency of our nation. And there they are, the words “In God We Trust.”

Do you think we would ever have to remove those words from the walls of this chamber? Let us trust in God that those words will never be removed. No court will ever think that it can remove those words “In God We Trust” from the walls of this chamber.

So our foremost presidents, Washington and Lincoln, certainly considered ours to be a nation under God. They used Thanksgiving, our special unique American holiday, as a time and a reason to celebrate it.

That acknowledgment of divine blessing did not stop there. After 1863, President Lincoln issued other Thanksgiving proclamations, and subsequent presidents who followed him, followed his example.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt talked of how appropriate it was to “set apart one day in each year for a special service of thanksgiving to the Almighty.” “It is imminently fitting,” he proclaimed, “that once a year our people should set apart a day of praise and thanksgiving to the Giver of Good … [therefore] I ask that through the land the people gather in their homes and places of worship and in rendering thanks unto the Most High for the manifold blessings of the past year.”

In his 1938 Thanksgiving proclamation, President Franklin Roosevelt noted:

“[F]rom the earliest recorded history, Americans have thanked God for their blessings. In our deepest natures, in our very souls, we, like all mankind, since the earliest origin of mankind, turned to God in time of happiness.”

Mr. President, 20 years later in his 1958 Thanksgiving proclamation, President Eisenhower proclaimed:

“Let us be especially grateful for the religious heritage bequeathed us by our forefathers, as exemplified by the Pilgrims, who, after the gathering of their first harvest, set apart a special day for rendering thanks to God for the bounties vouchsafed to them.”

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy asked the American people to “renew the spirit of the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, lonely in an inscrutable wilderness, facing the dark unknown with a faith borne of their dedication to God and a fortitude drawn from their sense that all men were brothers.”

So it is that we celebrate this unique American holiday, a day devoted to family, to country, and to God. It always has been. I pray it always will be a day for giving thanks. With the turmoil of the past year with our sons and daughters in far-away lands putting their lives in danger, we still have so much for which to be thankful.

We can be thankful for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and from whom we are entrusted to preserve for future generations of Americans.

We can be thankful for the wisdom and the foresight of our Founding Fathers, who bequeathed to us a form of government unique in history, with its three strong pillars of the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches, each balanced and checked one against the other.

Like President Washington, we can be thankful for “the many favors of Almighty God,” including a government that ensures our “safety and happiness.”

And like President Lincoln, we can be thankful for the “gracious gifts of the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

While we are saddened that there are so many young American men and women in uniform who will not be able to be with their families on this holiday, we can be thankful for their courage, thankful for their devotion to duty, and thankful for their service to our nation.

We can be thankful for those men and women who, 383 years ago, had the courage, the faith, and the devotion to our Almighty Father, to God, to embark upon the most difficult and dangerous of journeys and face the darkest unknown so that they, and we, could worship freely.

We can be thankful, can we not, for the abundance of America, an abundance that includes an annual production of millions of turkeys, millions of pounds of cranberries and sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

Mr. President, a few minutes ago, I read from President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863. Permit me now to read from the 1863 White House Thanksgiving menu.

According to that menu, in 1863, the White House Thanksgiving dinner consisted of the following, and I quote from that menu: cranberry juice; that is good. How sweet it is, cranberry juice; roast turkey with dressing, cranberry sauce.

Look at that man sitting in the chair, presiding over this Senate. Yes, there he is. I can see his mouth is watering like mine is watering.

Sweet potatoes, creamed onions. Well, I like my onions just plain onions, not creamed, but that was on the menu. Squash, pumpkin pie, plum pudding, mince pie, milk and coffee.

Does that sound familiar? How about it, does it sound familiar?

I hope my wife, Erma, is watching right at this moment because nobody in my lifetime can spread a table like my wife, Erma. She has been spreading that table in my family now for 66 years, bless her heart.

But does it sound familiar? It sure sounds like the 2003 Thanksgiving menu at the Byrd house. Boy, how I look forward to it. I am getting hungry just thinking about it. I am getting hungry. How about that?

I hope that my listeners are getting hungry also, and thinking about the first Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving, how would you have liked to have sat with that incredible, intrepid band of men and women?

So I am going to stop talking now, and I am going to head home, before too long, for our great Thanksgiving meal with my wife, Erma, and our two daughters and their husbands and our five grandchildren, their spouses, and our three great-grandchildren and our little dog, Trouble.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Happy Thanksgiving.