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Tom Putnam is a retired history museum director who lives in Cape Porpoise. His father, John Putnam, was the director of data services for Blue Cross of Maine.
I’ve been thinking recently about the last Thanksgiving my late father shared with his family before heading off to war.
The year was 1942 — 80 years ago — and democracy was on the ropes.
My dad, just 17 and a recent high school graduate, was eager to enlist and join the effort to rescue Europe from Adolf Hitler’s clutches. Two years later, he’d find himself driving a tank in the Battle of the Bulge.
Historian David McCullough described 1942 as one of “the darkest times in living memory” with “no guarantee whatsoever that the Nazi war-machine could be stopped.”
One of the difficulties of reading history backwards is that we know how the story ends in ways those living through it could not. I can only imagine the anticipation and foreboding my dad and his mother felt at their Thanksgiving table that year.
Their meal would not have been as sumptuous as the one painted by Norman Rockwell, also in November of 1942, entitled “Freedom from Want” — part of a series of paintings known as “The Four Freedoms,” based on President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 address preparing the nation for war.
My father would have been the only able-bodied man at his family’s table. His father had died years earlier, and his older brother was already overseas. Children of Irish immigrants, his mother and her siblings survived the Depression through “Aunt Maude’s” schoolteacher income. Rockwell’s second image — depicting “Freedom of Worship” — would have resonated with these devout Catholics.
Featuring figures from different faith traditions quietly praying under the words “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience,” it reminds us that at our origins we are a nation of immigrants beginning with those first Puritans who came as colonists to live and worship as they saw fit.
That history was more contentious than what we learned in grade school including the often-violent encounters with the Indigenous people whose lands they occupied and, in the centuries that followed, the millions of enslaved Africans transported here against their will.
No one can deny, however, the throughline of religious liberty that runs through our history and its connection to Thanksgiving, harkening back to our founding.
President George Washington first proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, as a day of “sincere and humble thanks,” the first to be celebrated under the new Constitution. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decreed the last Thursday of November as an annual national holiday.
Thanksgiving that year occurred exactly one week after Lincoln delivered his famous address in Gettysburg. In honoring the 8,000 war dead (on both sides), he set a great task before us: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
I carry, in a favored suit’s pocket near my heart, the leather-sheathed World War II plastic cross that my father was issued when he enlisted in the Army and that comforted him in battle. It is a talisman for me — a reminder of my dad’s willingness to put his life on the line for our nation’s ideals and defend other countries’ right to self-determination.
Democracy appears on the ropes again today. Self-rule is at stake in the war in Ukraine. Some suggest the autocracies in China or Hungary are the wave of the future.
And here at home, we are engaged, once again, in our own struggles, testing whether, in Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, a “nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … can long endure.”
Thanksgiving is a time not only to be thankful for our nation’s origins and founding principles but to recommit ourselves to a rebirth of freedom and all that entails — remembering and honoring those, like my dad “four-score years ago,” who risked their lives so that we might enjoy the bounties of our own.