WASHINGTON -- Thanksgiving is a joyous and grateful time of the year, when families gather together to express their gratitude for all that the Good Lord has bestowed on us and our country.
This uniquely American celebration began with the First Thanksgiving of English Pilgrims, who overcame huge hardships, hunger, sickness and fear to establish the first self-governing settlement in America.
"We do not know the exact date of the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving, but it was probably in late September or early October, soon after their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley and peas had been harvested," historian Nathaniel Philbrick writes in "Mayflower," a gripping account of the people who set out on a perilous voyage to the New World on Sept. 6, 1620.
A year later, having survived a bitter winter off Plymouth Harbor, and other perils, their leader, William Bradford, "declared it time to 'rejoice together ... after a more special manner.'"
That led to an historic feast that included roasted ducks, geese, wild turkeys and other fowl, and some unexpected gifts of freshly killed deer from Massasoit and a hundred or so Pokanokets who unexpectedly showed up at their frail settlement in a remarkable act of friendship.
"The term Thanksgiving, first applied in the 19th century, was not used by the Pilgrims themselves," Philbrick writes. "For the Pilgrims a thanksgiving was a time of spiritual devotion." And so it is for most Americans nearly four centuries later.
"There is one day that is ours," legendary short story author O. Henry once wrote. "Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American."
It is a time when we can collectively give thanks for the many freedoms we enjoy in this country that allow our citizens to pursue their life's dreams to create, grow, build and prosper.
A time when we express our gratitude that the Founding Fathers established a government of checks and balances under a Constitution, where its Bill of Rights declares that Congress "shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
These protections are written into the supreme law of our land, yet there are voices nowadays that seem to suggest that such freedoms need to be reexamined and perhaps even modified.
It is alarming in this regard to hear our political leaders say that the press is the enemy of America and that the people who are silently, yet peacefully expressing their displeasure on some issue or other should be silenced or punished.
This year's Thanksgiving holiday comes at a critical time in our country's history, when our people are deeply divided over a growing number of political issues and, indeed, the future direction of our nation.
The tone and texture of our political and social dialogue in the nation's capital has grown unusually nasty, insulting and disrespectful of differing points of view.
To be sure, there have been those times in our nation's modern history when political battles led to fierce clashes -- even violence -- that, for a brief time, threatened to tear our country apart.
The hand-to-hand civil rights battles in the '50s and '60s and the Vietnam War protests come to mind. But in the end, policies were changed, our nation survived, and America went about its business as usual.
There are those who believe that the political tumult and turmoil we've been experiencing in Washington and in our country is worse than ever, slowly eating away at the very fabric of our government and our electorate. Maybe so.
But, in the end, I think the Constitutional structure of government that our Founding Fathers built will be able to withstand our present troubles, and overcome them.
The men who set up that structure of three independent branches of government did so in the belief that no single branch can be more powerful than the other.
Fearing the tyranny of an ambitious chief executive hell-bent on exercising too much power, they gave Congress and the courts the power and the tools to stop him in his tracks.
It's frustrated many presidents who have tried to wield more power than they have, but that's OK. It's functioned pretty well, with all its flaws, for more than two centuries.
So on this Thanksgiving, let us be grateful to live in this blessed land of the free, secure in the belief and the hope that it will remain that way for many centuries to come.