Lincoln’s Thanksgiving

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving

Sarah Joseph Hale, a magazine editor, wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 28, 1863, urging him to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving.

Not that it was necessarily an observation alien to most Americans of the day. As historians note, many Northern states already celebrated such a day but on different days.

Lincoln himself (on Nov. 28, 1861) had ordered government departments to close for a day of thanksgiving. Seventy-four years earlier, President George Washington (on Oct. 3, 1789) asked for a similar day.

Hale, however, asked Lincoln to make “our annual Thanksgiving … a National and fixed Union Festival.”

As the editor’s letter continued, “You may have observed that, for some years past, 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 authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

Lincoln agreed. And on Oct. 3, 1863, Secretary of State William Seward drafted the proclamation for the president’s signature calling for “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise” to be held on the last Thursday of November each year.

It was Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt who later moved Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of November beginning in 1942. As historians tell it, the move came at the behest of Christmas retailers who saw the holiday shopping season truncated by one week in years in which November featured five Thursdays.

Yet more proof that the “commercialization” of Christmas has been a long-running phenomenon.

Here is Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation (separated into non-original paragraphs to make for easier reading). It is a remarkable document, coming as it did in the middle of the American Civil War:

Washington, D.C.
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 unequalled 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 battle-field; 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 United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Indeed, our great republic, commonwealth and region face many challenges. They always have. They always will. But giving thanks for what we have surely is an important foundation on which to build the wherewithal to make those challenges more manageable.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).