Remarks at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia
Thank you all. Thanks very much. Thanks for the warm welcome. I am proud to be back in the great State of Virginia. I particularly appreciate the chance to visit Berkeley Plantation. I thank the good people who care for this historic treasure. Over the years, Presidents have visited Berkeley. President William Henry Harrison called it home. As a matter of fact, it was here where he composed the longest inauguration speech in history. [Laughter] He went on for nearly 2 hours. You don't need to worry; I'm not going to try to one up him today. [Laughter]
Berkeley also claims to be the site of America's first official Thanksgiving. The good folks here say that the founders of Berkeley held their celebration before the pilgrims had even left port. As you can imagine, this version of events is not very popular up North. [Laughter] But even the administration of President Kennedy—a son of Massachusetts—recognized Berkeley's role in this important holiday. And so this afternoon I've come to honor Berkeley's history and to continue the great American tradition of giving thanks.
Laura sends her best. Now, most people say, "I wish she'd have come and not you." [Laughter] She's doing just fine, and I know she is going to be envious when I describe how beautiful this part of the country is. And I thank you for giving me a chance to come.
I want to thank my friend Tom Saunders, who is the founder of the Saunders Trust for American History at the New York Historical Society. That means he and his wife Jordan are raising money to make sure this site is as beautiful as it is and stays an important part of our history and legacy.
I thank Judy and Jamie Jamieson, who happen to be the owners of this beautiful site, and I appreciate your hospitality. I can't help but recognize my daughter's future father-in-law. [Laughter] I appreciate you coming. A lot of people think she's showed some pretty good common sense to marry somebody from Virginia. He's doing all right himself. [Laughter]
I appreciate the fact that the Congressman from this district, Congressman Bobby Scott, is with us. Thanks for coming, Bobby. Congressman Eric Cantor from Richmond is with us. And Congressman Randy Forbes, appreciate you coming, Randy.
I want to thank the Lieutenant Governor, Bill Bolling, for joining us. Thank you for coming, Governor. Bob McDonnell, the Attorney General—General, I appreciate you being here. I had the honor of meeting the high sheriff. Sheriff, thank you and your law enforcement officials. I'm proud to be with you. I want to thank all the local officeholders and State officeholders. And most of all, thank you for letting me come by, and I appreciate you coming.
Every November, we celebrate the traditions of Thanksgiving; we're fixing to do so again. We remember that the pilgrims great—gave thanks after their first harvest in New England. We remember that George Washington led his men in Thanksgiving during the American Revolution. And we remember that Abraham Lincoln revived the Thanksgiving tradition in the midst of a bloody civil war.
Yet few Americans remember much about Berkeley. They don't know the story of the Berkeley Thanksgiving. This story has its beginnings in the founding of the colony of Virginia four centuries ago. As the colony grew, settlers ventured beyond the walls of Jamestown and into the surrounding countryside. The Berkeley Company of England acquired 8,000 acres of nearby land and commissioned an expedition to settle it.
In 1619, a band of 38 settlers departed Bristol, England, for Berkeley aboard a ship like the one behind me. At the end of their long voyage, the men reviewed their orders from home. And here's what the orders said: "The day of our ship's arrival . . . shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God." Upon hearing those orders, the men fell to their knees in prayer. And with this humble act of faith, the settlers celebrated their first Thanksgiving in the New World.
In the years that followed, the settlers at Berkeley faced many hardships. And in 1622, the settlement was destroyed. Berkeley became a successful plantation after it was rebuilt, when people returned to this site. And it is an important part of our history. And as we look back on the story of Berkeley, we remember that we live in a land of many blessings.
The story of Berkeley reminds us that we live in a land of opportunity. We remember that the settlers at Berkeley came to America with the hope of building a better life. And we remember that immigrants in every generation have followed in their footsteps. Their dreams have helped transform 13 small Colonies into a large and growing nation of more than 300 million people.
Today, we're blessed with great prosperity. We're blessed with farmers and ranchers who provide us with abundant food. We're blessed with the world's finest workers, with entrepreneurs who create new jobs. We're blessed with devoted teachers who prepare our children for the opportunities of tomorrow. We're blessed with a system of free enterprise that makes it possible for people of all backgrounds to rise in society and realize their dreams. These blessings have helped us build a strong and growing economy, and these blessings have filled our lives full of hope.
The story of Berkeley reminds us that we live in a nation dedicated to liberty. In 1776, Berkeley's owner, Benjamin Harrison, became one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration, we see the Founders' great hope for our country, their conviction that we're all created equal, with the God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
At times, America has fallen short of these ideals. We remember that the expansion of our country came at a terrible cost to Native American tribes. We remember that many people came to the New World in chains rather than by choice. For many years, slaves were held against their will here at Berkeley and other plantations, and their bondage is a shameful chapter in our Nation's history.
Today, we're grateful to live in a more perfect Union. Yet our society still faces divisions that hold us back. These divisions have roots in the bitter experiences of our past and have no place in America's future. The work of realizing the ideals of our founding continues, and we must not rest until the promise of America is real for all our citizens.
We're also grateful to live in a time when freedom is taking hold in places where liberty was once unimaginable. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the number of democracies in the world has more than doubled. From our own history, we know these young democracies will face challenges and setbacks in the journey ahead. Yet as they travel the road to freedom, they must know that they will have a constant and reliable friend in the United States of America.
The story of Berkeley reminds us to honor those who have sacrificed in the cause of freedom. During the Civil War, Union forces at Berkeley adopted a nightly bugle call that has echoed throughout the ages. The bugle call has become known as "Taps." And when we hear it play, we remember that the freedoms we enjoyed have come at a heavy price.
Today, the men and women of the United States Armed Forces are taking risks for our freedom. They're fighting on the frontlines of the war on terror, the war against extremists and radicals who would do us more harm. Many of them will spend Thanksgiving far from the comforts of home. And so we thank them for their service and sacrifice. We keep their families and loved ones in our prayers. We pray for the families who lost a loved one in this fight against the extremists and radicals, and we vow that their sacrifice will not be in vain.
This Thanksgiving, we pay tribute to all Americans who serve a cause larger than themselves. We are thankful for the police officers who patrol our streets. We're thankful for the firefighters who protect our homes and property. We're thankful for the leaders of our churches and synagogues and all faith-based organizations that call us to live lives of charity. We're thankful of the ordinary citizens who become good Samaritans in times of distress.
This Thanksgiving, we remember the many examples of the good heart of the American people that we have seen this past year. We remember the Virginia Tech professor who died blocking a gunman from entering his classroom. As a survivor of the Holocaust, Professor Liviu Librescu had seen the worst of humanity, yet through his sacrifice, he showed us the best.
We remember the Minneapolis man who was escorting a busload of children when the bridge underneath them collapsed. Jeremy Hernandez responded to this emergency with courage. He broke open the back door of the bus, and he helped lead every child on board to safety.
We remember the people in New Orleans who are rebuilding a great American city. One of them is Principal Doris Hicks. After Katrina, many said that her school could never return to its building in the Lower Ninth Ward. But Principal Hicks had a different point of view; she had a different attitude. As a matter of fact, she had a uniquely American attitude. She had a vision for a resurgent community with a vibrant school at its heart. This summer, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology became the first public school to reopen in the Lower Ninth Ward.
These stories remind us that our Nation's greatest strength is the decency and compassion of our people. As we count our many blessings, I encourage all Americans to show their thanks by giving back. You know, I just visited the Central Virginia Foodbank. If you're living in Richmond and you want to give back, help the Central Virginia Foodbank. The volunteers there help prepare thousands of meals for the poor each day. And in so doing, they make the Richmond community and our Nation a more hopeful place. And there are many ways to spread hope this holiday: volunteer in a shelter, mentor a child, help an elderly neighbor, say thanks to one who wears our Nation's uniform.
In the four centuries since the founders of Berkeley first knelt on these grounds, our Nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered; our Nation has grown; our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved—after all, they didn't have football back then. [Laughter] Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same. We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our Nation every day.
I wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving. I offer Thanksgiving greetings to every American citizen. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.
NOTE: The President spoke at 12:24 p.m. In his remarks, he referred to John H. Hager, chairman, Republican Party of Virginia; and Beverly A. Washington, sheriff, Charles City County, Virginia. The related Thanksgiving Day proclamation of November 15 is listed in Appendix D at the end of this volume.
George W. Bush, Remarks at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/277053