Monthly Archives: November 2016

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation


I will admit that I only learned about the origins of the national holiday created by Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 a few years ago.  Working on the research for the food collection American Appetites, I was fascinated to read Lincoln’s pensive words about gratitude during a time of national crisis and profound division.

Students are rarely taught about this origin of the holiday which is grounded in such important lessons.  Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together to feast, which is largely a mythology wrapped in nostalgia and sentimentalism, too often veils the thoughtful ideas of Lincoln.   In capitulating to magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale’s persistent lobbying for the creation of a national holiday, Lincoln seemed to view the timing of the war as a significant moment in which to offer gratitude.  This is perhaps the more fundamental lesson of the holiday: in times of upheaval and rupture, it is vital, even necessary, to give thanks for all that we have materially and spiritually.

The moment of thanks envisioned by Lincoln is not about turkey and cranberry sauce.  Rather, he seems to intuit that the current civil war will end, and that the country must somehow unite to move forward after the last military battle is fought.  What better message than that of gratitude upon which to start a new national dialogue?  I am not one of those people who generally lionizes Abraham Lincoln.  There are many reasons to critique him and his presidency.  However, this strikes me as a moment in which he displayed true wisdom.

This is the point at which I am supposed to write that our nation is again in turmoil and deeply divided, and a moment of thanksgiving is especially important this year.  At the risk of sounding trite, there is truth in Lincoln’s missive for all of us today.  The historian in me needs to point out that this troubled country has contained major cleavages from the very beginning.  That truth notwithstanding, pausing to meditate and give thanks to the universe, or the god of your religion, can only bring positive energy to those around us, on November 24th, 2016, and each day that follows.

Take a moment to reflect on Lincoln’s words from October 1863:

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans. mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.


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