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Lincoln and Thanksgiving



by David Madden, ALBC State Liaison to Louisiana

As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday, it is fitting that we be mindful of the fact that we are also approaching Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday and that in 1863 he issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Standing knee deep in the blood of brothers, a few months after the harvest of death in the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the President saw a new way to unite the nation. He decided to proclaim the last Thursday in November as an annual day of thanksgiving.

On October 3, 1863, the day he issued the proclamation, what did the nation have to be thankful for?

Military defeats in the South; in the North, civilian privations, war casualties, and draft riots; slaves, ex-slaves, free men and women of color caught between two worlds; in the West, Native Americans engaged in a Civil War of their own—all that would seem to preclude any thought of giving thanks.

We might ask the same question of ourselves on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. In this nation, economic crisis, crime, pollution, and general weariness and loss in too many families; in Iraq and Afghanistan, young Americans suffering prolonged military service, wounds, and psychic trauma, and the high death count—those are a few reasons why we might refrain from giving thanks.

But, paradoxically, counting one’s blessings is especially reassuring in times of adversity, such as our Civil War and our present wars.

Sarah Josepha Hale, novelist, poet, and editor, keenly aware of the shattered state of the nation and the grief of its citizens, must have envisioned Thanksgiving Day as one in which there were, even so, plenty to be thankful for. She recalled that Fall harvests had been a time for thanksgiving since 1621 when Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony proclaimed the continuation of the English harvest feast, and that George Washington on October 3, 1789  issued a Proclamation urging all the colonies to celebrate  Thanksgiving on the same day, a one time occasion.

Sarah Hale started agitating in the 1840’s for Thanksgiving “as a great force for the Union,” imploring Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan to establish formally a national Thanksgiving holiday that only New England had celebrated in earlier years,  

“Madonna in Bustles,” Sarah Hale is the mother, so to speak, of Thanksgiving for it was she who persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to become the father. She convinced Lincoln in 1863 to support legislation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival….You may have observed that, for some years past,” she wrote to him, “there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution."

We ought to give thanks for Sarah Hale herself , for having earned such a long national reputation as to make her a persuasive advocate. As editor of the famous monthly publication Godey’s Lady’s Book, she had become a national arbiter of taste in fashion and architecture, and a leading advocate of higher education for women. One of her many novels, Northwood, or, Life North and South, published in 1827, was the first novel about slavery. Lincoln would have known that, as editor and writer, she had educated the public in the history of America and promoted the ideal of national unity and purpose in literature and in government. She helped raise money in Boston for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument. Her editorship lasted forty years; she died in Philadelphia at age 90 in 1879. Her legacy had so endured that in 1942 the famous Liberty Ship was named in her honor.

President Lincoln had already issued a one time day of thanksgiving on November 28, 1861, ordering the closing of Federal government departments in Washington for a day, and another Proclamation of Thanksgiving in July 1863 for Union victories at Gettysburg in the Eastern Theater and at Vicksburg in the Western theater, both victories on the Fourth of July, the 86th anniversary of the victory that produced the Union he was striving to restore and preserve. This man who espoused no particular religious creed nevertheless was moved to call on “the Holy Spirit to subdue the anger … and change the hearts of the insurgents.” Richard Carwardine reminds us that Lincoln set “aside more days for national religious observance than any of his predecessors.

So President Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation making the last Thursday of each year a national Thanksgiving holiday, holiday that is now 146 years old. In his biography published in 1953, J. G. Randall wrote that by this act of leadership, Lincoln had made Thanksgiving “an institution touching the hearts and expressing the emotions of the American people… a focus of national thought,” from “the man to whom the people turned, the spokesman of the nation.” That it was not one of his official duties gave it a “broader dimension,” made it “a matter of public relations, with emotional and intangible elements of the national Union, with the virtue and merits of unity itself, and with President as the embodiment of that unity.” Governors of States and Territories followed with their own proclamations.

The President issued another proclamation the following year, dated October 20, reaffirming the declaration of the first one. “I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may be then, as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens… that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust, and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the great Disposer of events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased him to assign as a dwelling –place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”

So do citizens of this nation now, as then, have ample cause to give thanks. Yes, yes, some may mindlessly say. No, no, some may mindlessly say. But the vast majority will know what I mean. At the deepest level, I mean that the idea of giving thanks can never be cynically dismissed because if it is actually in the midst of adversity that one feels the urge most powerfully, that urge is latent every day in many people and acted upon more often than one might think. For the cynics, the pessimists, and the superficial optimists, I wish I could offer a list, but even on the public day of Thanksgiving, giving thanks is essentially a personal act. And the one day when many give thanks in concert is a day when we commemorate the very idea of giving thanks.

Confined to his room with variloid, what might Lincoln himself have had to be thankful for on that first day, November 26, 1863, when his proclamation went into effect? Despite a long list of troubles, private and public, one thing he might have given thanks for was the fact that he didn’t die after his speech at Gettysburg a week earlier. “According to two medical researchers…, most historians have failed to recognize that when Lincoln delivered his speech… he was in the early stages of a life-threatening illness — a serious form of smallpox…. Almost a third of those contracting this serious form of smallpox in the mid-19th century died, the researchers said.”

Over the years, the nature of this old American custom has changed from gratitude for the harvest in hand to a way of uniting the disputatious children of a house divided to a time over the past century when the harvest has been the eve of a vast and varied commercial enterprise that targets Christmas as the most profitable time of the year.

With February 12th, his 200th birthday less than three months away, let us give for Abraham Lincoln himself. In 1863, few people, North as well as the South, would do that. One hundred and forty five later, most people, in the South as well, might very well do that.

On that first Thanksgiving Day, President Lincoln was in the midst of an effort to fulfill a vision of reconciliation and restoration that he would pursue until the night John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head, thus raising the curtain on the national tragedy of Reconstruction on which the curtain has yet to fall. He was striving to reunite the old nation, in such ways as to forge a new nation.

We may thank Lincoln for making it possible not only that a once enslaved people may participate as equals in the life of our nation but that one of them may, in his bicentennial year, govern this nation.