When we are not taking a sledgehammer to statues of Abraham Lincoln or desecrating those monuments with graffiti or changing the name of Abraham Lincoln High School (even while the place was shuttered due to COVID) or otherwise suggesting that the savior of our union be held to some impossible standard of newly defined enlightenment, we might add to the gratitude owed him an extra measure of thanks for making Thanksgiving Day a thing.
Think of the context of autumn 1863. The Civil War was fully aflame. The first half of the year had been marked by escalating doubts as to the Union Army’s ability to prevail. Antiwar sentiment was rising. A summertime protest in New York City turned into a riot that killed more than one hundred.
Historians regard that July as a turning point of the war. Union victories in Vicksburg and Gettysburg were strategically critical and provided a necessary boost of morale.
But the war had another brutal, bloody 18 months to run. A good deal of the news coming into Union headquarters was still distinctly dark. Confederate guerillas had destroyed most of Lawrence, Kansas. Union troops in Chattanooga, Tennessee were surrounded and under siege.
The Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect at the start of the year. The Gettysburg Address was perhaps forming in Lincoln’s mind but was still to come later in November.
Yet, even amidst such loss, devastation and uncertainty, Lincoln’s thinking was expansive enough to recognize the importance of giving thanks for the nation’s bounty.
From his proclamation dated Oct. 3, 1863, which for the first time set aside the last Thursday in November as a national “day of Thanksgiving and Praise”:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, … 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.”
“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, 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.”
What a remarkable document. Of course, it points to a different age, an agrarian country in which physical labor, often back-breaking, was paramount. All of which again speaks to the folly of those who condescend to judge that era, or any distant time, by contemporary standards and mores.
At the end of September 1863, as she had done over many years and directed to many presidents, Sarah Josepha Hale, then the elderly editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine, wrote to Lincoln, urging him to declare “a day of annual Thanksgiving” and to make it a national festival on a fixed date.
In years prior, many states, mostly in New England or elsewhere in the north, had intermittently scheduled their own Thanksgiving at varying times.
Where his predecessors had ignored Hale’s pleadings, Lincoln responded immediately and issued his proclamation within a week. It continued.
“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.”
As this 159th official Thanksgiving is upon us, Lincoln’s original decree remains noteworthy. It teaches us what real leadership and vision look like. It reminds us that gratitude and reflection have an essential place even in a time of vast hardship and suffering.
In our current climate of malignant division and even hatred between political tribes, it can serve as a bit of calming, soothing balm. Many worry that we risk a new civil war, this one without defined boundaries. That is a course sought by only the most foolish of the foolhardy. But it is not beyond the pale of possibility. Here is hoping that a day of thankfulness, consideration and grace might take the edge off those hottest of heads and loudest of voices.
If you are apprehensive about sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with that boisterously Trumpian uncle or that Bernie-loving niece, or just that neighbor down the street with the disagreeable political signage, read Lincoln’s words and take a cleansing breath. Then, reach out your hand.
We have been here before minus Twitter, Facebook and so many other aggravating accelerants. There is a way out of the cavern and back from the fissure. Lincoln demonstrated as much in his offer of amnesty to rebel soldiers early that December. Over a year later, in the final wind-down of the war, Union Generals Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, along with Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, did much the same in laying the groundwork for reconciliation instead of vengeful retribution.
If you are looking for something to do this Thursday while the feast cooks (and during the umpteenth commercial break of the football game), Google Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation and read it through. It is not overly long, in keeping with his style.
Our family has a long tradition of placing five small kernels of corn at each setting on the Thanksgiving table. Their purpose is to signify how little some have amid the abundance we enjoy. Then either before dinner or after the meal, we go around the table with each person citing a gratitude for each kernel. For us, it instills the occasion with meaning.
When it is my turn this year, as I list a few of those things for which I am most grateful, be assured there will be mention of the role of all those, including our greatest President, who brought us to this day and this table.