Thanksgiving and the Ray of Light

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.

A Proclamation.

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

Gettysburg Address
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.


  1. Jack,
    The 5th of May is not Mexican Independence Day, but it should be!  And Cinco de Mayo is not an American holiday, but it should be.  Mexico declared its independence from mother Spain on midnight, the 15th of September, 1810.  And it took 11 years before the first Spanish soldiers were told and forced to leave Mexico.

    So, why Cinco de Mayo?  And why should Americans savor this day as well?  Because 4,000 Mexican soldiers smashed the French and traitor Mexican army of 8,000 at Puebla, Mexico, 100 miles east of Mexico City on the morning of May 5, 1862.

    The French had landed in Mexico (along with Spanish and English troops) five months earlier on the pretext of collecting Mexican debts from the newly elected government of democratic President (and Indian) Benito Juarez.  The English and Spanish quickly made deals and left.  The French, however, had different ideas.

    Under Emperor Napoleon III, who detested the United States, the French came to stay.  They brought a Hapsburg prince with them to rule the new Mexican empire.  His name was Maximilian; his wife, Carolota.  Napoleon’s French Army had not been defeated in 50 years, and it invaded Mexico with the finest modern equipment and with a newly reconstituted Foreign Legion.  The French were not afraid of anyone, especially since the United States was embroiled in its own Civil War.

    The French Army left the port of Vera Cruz to attack Mexico City to the west, as the French assumed that the Mexicans would give up should their capital fall to the enemy—as European countries traditionally did.

    Under the command of Texas-born General Zaragosa, (and the cavalry under the command of Colonel Porfirio Diaz, later to be Mexico’s president and dictator), the Mexicans awaited.  Brightly dressed French Dragoons led the enemy columns.  The Mexican Army was less stylish.

    General Zaragosa ordered Colonel Diaz to take his cavalry, the best in the world, out to the French flanks.  In response, the French did a most stupid thing; they sent their cavalry off to chase Diaz and his men, who proceeded to butcher them.  The remaining French infantrymen charged the Mexican defenders through sloppy mud from a thunderstorm and through hundreds of head of stampeding cattle stirred up by Indians armed only with machetes.

    When the battle was over, many French were killed or wounded and their cavalry was being chased by Diaz’ superb horsemen miles away.  The Mexicans had won a great victory that kept Napoleon III from supplying the confederate rebels for another year, allowing the United States to build the greatest army the world had ever seen.  This grand army smashed the Confederates at Gettysburg just 14 months after the battle of Puebla, essentially ending the Civil War.

    Union forces were then rushed to the Texas/Mexican border under General Phil Sheridan, who made sure that the Mexicans got all the weapons and ammunition they needed to expel the French.  American soldiers were discharged with their uniforms and rifles if they promised to join the Mexican Army to fight the French.  The American Legion of Honor marched in the Victory Parade in Mexico, City.

    It might be a historical stretch to credit the survival of the United States to those brave 4,000 Mexicans who faced an army twice as large in 1862.  But who knows?

    In gratitude, thousands of Mexicans crossed the border after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. Armed Forces.  As recently as the Persian Gulf War, Mexicans flooded American consulates with phone calls, trying to join up and fight another war for America.

    Mexicans, you see, never forget who their friends are, and neither do Americans.  That’s why Cinco de Mayo is such a party—A party that celebrates freedom and liberty.  There are two ideals which Mexicans and Americans have fought shoulder to shoulder to protect, ever since the 5th of May, 1862.
      Once again the hispanics have come to the Aid of our great Nation. The election of our new President perhaps rivals the defeat of the French in Puebla.
      I will be interesting to pick tomatoes along side a morgage broker or better yet a Bankster, in the fields of Salinas.
                  The Village Black Smith

  2. As a white person who pays attention to how racism works in San Jose and the U.S., I have been dismayed at the way ICE raids here and vigilantes like the minutemen and the fascistic Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona have been trumpeted by white pundits in the U.S. recently as heroes and patriots.

    The notion that the ills of this society are due to undocumented immigrants is scapegoating and ridiculous: the government pleads that it cannot enforce labor laws or provide resources to meet U.S. citizens’ basic needs (health care, housing, social security, education) because it has no money, however it eagerly gives tax breaks to the wealthy and 700 billion dollar bailouts to corrupt bankers and speculators who then hoard it.

    Regular people are driven from their homes and laid off in record numbers, but instead of looking at the rich and connected as the source of our troubles, white people and workers frightened of losing economic resources are told to blame immigrants who are busily contributing to every community they live in and working their butts off. Undocumented people are either political refugees or economic refugees who are coming here to work from countries which the U.S. government has dominated economically and robbed for decades through NAFTA, WTO, and IMF policies.

    Gil’s contibution above reminds me of another moment when people in the U.S. and Mexico saw common cause and fought together for freedom and liberty for all, crossing language and racial lines and earning the respect of all freedom loving people in both countries.

    The Saint Patrick’s Battalion was a group of Irish, German, and other light skinned immigrants who were drafted into the U.S. army to fight Mexico to conquer what is now the Southwestern U.S. The Saint Patrick’s Battalion refused to kill Mexican people and joined the Mexican Army to resist U.S. aggression which they saw to be painfully like the aggression and chauvinism of the British who brutally occupied Ireland for so many years. They fought alongside the Mexican people who were defending themselves and while they were eventually captured and executed en masse, the blow they struck against white supremacy and U.S. colonialism are the only positive thing I can draw from the U.S. Mexican War.'s_Battalion

    So, this Thanksgiving I give thanks to the white people who have fought against white supremacy, and I encourage more of us to step forward to embrace the contributions of immigrants in our communities by defending their human and labor rights and by fighting the anti-immigrant hysteria wherever it rears its ugly head to distract us from the government and corporate policies that are impoverishing us.

  3. Very Interesting Quote

    In light of the present financial crisis, it’s interesting to read what Thomas Jefferson said in 1802:

    ‘I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.’

  4. Thank You Downtownster,
      It is with joy that I embrace your thoughts on this thread.
      The immigration issue has been a means for the righteous right to keep our minds off of the fact that behind every bush is a bankster.
      When and if we can stop and look at the true issues that confront us, 700 gazillion bucks of our money to the good old boys, our corp. induced jobs to the other continents, Mumbai India is but one example of the truth of our deception to our selves.
      I’ve said this many times before. How does that Tomato taste? Fresh , clean, and hand picked by a caring hand, just for us. Does it get any better than that?
      God Bless Los Patricios! They died for a cause that most of us have never known let alone understood!
      To understand Homeland Security one but has to go back to June of 1886 at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the Alamo, and the never conquered Siminole Indians. Collectively there are millions of stories of of true honorerable deeds by Moms, Dads, Brothers, that have contributed to our country in some way over the past 200 years.
      Shock and Awe! that was when we knew we had been had.
      The look of Happiness on the faces of my children as they cooked our family Thankgiving Turkey and trimming assured me that all will be OK. We are a nation of family. Sure , we have the fin fans and the novices, but doesn’t any society have it’s individuals in denial. Criticium comes from guilt.
      Thankgiving is about a group Hug. Yep even for old politicians that understand when enough is enough!
      The Village Black Smith