Food for Thought
While you would be forgiven for thinking the national situation is looking pretty dark on Thanksgiving Day 2008, consider the bleak view President Lincoln must have had from the White House when he declared the national holiday on October 3, 1863.
After a period where it looked like the Union would not be spared, Lincoln finally had a few victories to celebrate, but at a terrible price. A year before, the worst single battle casualties in American history had been suffered at Antietam. The Union forces prevailed and Lee’s army was pushed out of Maryland. It gave Lincoln the strength and political will to issue the Emancipation Proclamation the following week on September 22, 1862, which declared the freedom of all slaves in the eleven states engaged in rebellion against the Union. Of course, it was in one sense a futile gesture for the moment, given that his authority was not recognized by those states. However, it was a spiritual victory in that, for the first time, he articulated a national aspiration to rid the country of the scourge that had thus far been secondary to his stated efforts to preserve the Union. This aspiration would become the 13th Amendment adopted a few months after his assassination.
Exactly three months before the Thanksgiving Proclamation, in the stifling summer heat, another landmark victory for the Union came with General Meade’s defeat of Lee at Gettysburg, again at a heavy price in life and limb. The end of that battle on July 3 was quickly followed the next day, the nation’s 87th birthday, with news of Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the Confederates had surrendered after being under siege for many weeks. The Union was now in control of the Mississippi River, the Confederate Army was in retreat, and General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” to surround the Confederacy and choke the life out of the rebellion that Lincoln had bet on was finally paying off.
Like the prospects of a new presidency that we who are living today feel hopeful for on Thanksgiving 2008, Lincoln saw a ray of light pierce the dark times he was steering the fractured country through. It inspired him to proclaim the holiday that has become uniquely American, now celebrated North and South, and to write and deliver the pure poetry of the Gettysburg Address, given just a few days before the first official Thanksgiving, to an audience stunned to silence. These two documents are still, to my mind, the perfect literary embodiment of the spirit of Thanksgiving. They sum up what it means to be Americans, who, when humbled in the face of enormous forces that seem beyond our control, are able to find extraordinary leadership, grab hold of a common thread, and pull ourselves up out of the deepest, darkest recesses of history.
Happy Thanksgiving, and I hope that you enjoy reading these great words.
NOTE: According to Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay, the Thanksgiving holiday proclamation was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting. This makes sense as the language used is very different from Lincoln’s style.
The Thanksgiving Proclamation of October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards 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 cannot 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre 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 plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe 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, tranquility 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 Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
Delivered November 19, 1863
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.