Posted by Barry Strauss under on November 24, 2011

I was surprised to find Caesar’s Ghost at my door again, and on a holiday morning. “Happy Thanksgiving, Dictator!” I said.

Hail, professor.

Caesar looked perplexed. I asked what ailed him.

I do not understand this Thanksgiving of yours. In Rome, we had Thanskgiving too, and we called it supplicatio. But it was not an annual event. We saved Thanksgiving for special occasions, to celebrate the victories of great men.

When Caesar defeated the Belgae in Gaul, for instance, the Senate decreed fifteen days of Thanksgiving, an honor never given anyone before. Then, after Caesar conquered Britain and suppressed the rebellion of Vercingetorix, the Senate honored him with twenty days of Thanksgiving.

But you Americans – you miss an opportunity to praise famous men. Instead, you waste Thanksgiving in general gratitude to the Deity for all His blessings. What nonsense. Without famous men, society would sink back into the swamps.

How wrong you are, Caesar. Thanksgiving is a unique holiday of our democratic republic. We Americans merely follow the example of our founder, George Washington. In 1789, George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving Day, which was Thursday, November 26. You can see his handwritten proclamation here, and a newspaper version here.


What pretty words. Washington thanks the Almighty for the new republic and for victory in the War of Independence on which it rested. He would have done better to have the Senate offer thanks for himself! Washington did not know his political ABC’s.

How so?

This Washington of yours: I love and hate him. On the one hand, he was a general after Caesar’s own heart. Washington was a sloppy tactician but a good strategist and a great politician. He made the men of the Continental Army love him and, without that, the American Revolution would have collapsed.

On the other hand, Washington turned down the chance of absolute power. If he had become Dictator as he should have, and not merely President, he could have brought America the blessings of dignitas – of wise rule by the first man in the state.

Washington was a saint of liberty.

Liberty! A good slogan but an empty one. Washington loved Cato the Younger – Caesar’s political nemesis. In our day, Cato too went on and on about liberty, except when it came to the liberty of the Roman masses and their champions, the tribunes of the plebs. Cato was deaf to their pleas.

Likewise Washington talked about liberty from the British but he kept hundreds of slaves on his estate.

But he freed them!

Only after his death. While he was alive, Washington was not only a slave master, but he was sometimes a harsh one. For example, he broke up slave families and shipped slaves with discipline problems to the West Indies, where life was short and nasty.

No one’s perfect.

I know, but try telling that to Brutus.

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