When Alexis de Tocqueville sought to explain the success of American democracy to his French compatriots, he directed them to look to the Pilgrim founding of New England. Though the first southern colonies predated those of New England, the Pilgrims were, he explained, the true founders of America, because they brought to these shores a political and religious tradition uniquely favorable to political freedom.

It is fitting, therefore, that we recall the Pilgrims each year at Thanksgiving, when we set aside an autumn day, as they did, to express our gratitude for all the wondrous gifts we have received, as human beings and as citizens of the United States.

Unlike the spirited adventurers who settled to the southern colonies, hoping to find wealth and empire in the New World, the Pilgrims came to build a new society. Their first ship, the Mayflower, brought not only men, but whole families, hopefully determined to establish a permanent home in what was then a hostile wilderness. Upon arriving at Plymouth, the Pilgrims wrote and signed America’s earliest true constitution, the Mayflower Compact, by which they agreed to form “a civil body politic” for their “better ordering and preservation.”

At first, the laws and customs of the Pilgrims were wholly Puritan. The iron faith that carried them across the North Atlantic in wooden ships frowned on idle amusement and dissipated pleasures. So austere was their Christianity that they abjured the giving of gifts at Christmastime.

Looking back at their stern legislation, we may see them as joyless authoritarians, but de Tocqueville reminds us that they also taught and practiced a “beautiful” definition of freedom, which recognized that simply doing as we please is a kind of selfishness. The freedom worth having and worth sacrificing for is a freedom that respects the just rights of others and enables us to do such good for ourselves and others as we are capable of accomplishing. To this spirit of freedom, entwined with the Pilgrims’ spirit of religion, de Tocqueville attributed the flourishing of American democracy.

Although George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 did not mention the Pilgrims, his words breathed their spirit. Declaring the last Thursday of November in the first year of his presidency a day of national prayer and thanksgiving, he exhorted his fellow citizens to give thanks for their national independence, for the “great degree of tranquility, union and plenty” they had thereafter enjoyed, for the “peaceable and rational manner” by which the state and national constitutions had been established, for the “civil and religious liberty” they enjoyed under the governments and laws thus established, and for “all the great and various favors” conferred upon them by “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

If any man could claim responsibility for American victory in the war of independence; if any man could claim responsibility for the preservation of American union; if any man could claim responsibility for having secured the establishment of our Constitution — that man was George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, father of his country, and president of the Constitutional Convention. Yet with sincere humility and gratitude he attributed the success of those great projects in which he played such a leading part to the guiding hand of Providence. How much more thankful, then, should the rest of us be for all the benefits we enjoy as Americans.

In the centuries since Washington’s first Thanksgiving proclamation, his successors regularly named days of prayer and giving thanks, and since Abraham Lincoln’s administration, presidents have annually issued official proclamations declaring a late Thursday in November a day of national Thanksgiving.

President Barack Obama’s Thanksgiving Proclamations have all prominently featured references to the Pilgrims, and he, like his so many of his predecessors in that great office, annually calls the American people to give thanks for the “blessings of family, community and country” and to use our freedom well by fulfilling our duties to serve our neighbors and fellow citizens.

Gratitude, the thankful recognition of how many good things we enjoy that we did not make alone and could not have made by our unaided efforts, is the fundamental religious attitude. As long as we continue as a people to afford a prominent place in our culture for a holiday of thanksgiving, we will be keeping alive some part of the religious spirit breathed into America by our Pilgrim founders.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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