Many Americans will seek sustenance in Thanksgiving, a day “set apart” by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” Lincoln announced in a proclamation issued Oct. 3. “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.”
Today, the celebration commemorates the first harvest of 1621. Its association with frightful violence against Native Americans makes the occasion delicate for some. There is no easy comfort on Thanksgiving, nor on any other day so redolent of the past.
But the reason that tables are set around the country on Thursday is not because of the pilgrims or their exploits. Whether turkey was served at the 17th-century bounty is of little significance. (The original menu is in question.)
It’s because Lincoln, more than two centuries after settlers arrived in Colonial America, saw reason for thanks in the midst of trying times — events that put present strife into perspective. On the urging of poet and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, the 16th president took what had been a festival celebrated disparately across the country and made it a national holiday, to be observed on the last Thursday of November. (In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would move it to the fourth Thursday of the month.)
It would be a day for “Thanksgiving and Praise," he ordered.
The country was at war over slavery, but still Lincoln saw reason for hope. And his words still hold the power to nourish a divided society.
Americans were waging war against each other, he observed, but “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.”
Even the military conflict was cause for optimism, he found, as “that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” Three months earlier, the Union had scored decisive victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg — turning points in a war testing the endurance of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln would intone the following month in the Gettysburg Address, which turned 155 years old on Monday.
Meanwhile, the war effort had hardly sapped enterprise, whether on the fields or in the mines. The country, he noted, could rejoice “in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor.”
Military victory, suddenly in sight, promised to bring a “large increase of freedom," Lincoln said.
This Thanksgiving, American soldiers are stationed at the country’s southern border, preparing for the arrival of a caravan of desperate asylum seekers whom President Trump has portrayed as a threat to national security. The 45th president has yet to visit troops deployed in a combat zone, but on Monday he ramped up his criticism of retired Adm. William H. McRaven, who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden and the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Trump refers to the armed forces as “my military.” Lincoln, by contrast, saw in the tumultuous events of 1863 good fortune beyond the workings of “any mortal hand.”
“They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy,” Lincoln said, in an order believed to have been crafted by his secretary of state, William H. Seward.
The proclamation mentioned God but no particular religion, making space at the Thanksgiving table for people of many faiths. This is fitting for a holiday that has come to represent civic belonging unfiltered by religious identification, which remains central to other national holidays.
Thanksgiving is about no individual figure. It’s symbolized by no national flag. It’s rather about common bounty and shared bonds.
For these “gifts,” Lincoln declared, Americans should give thanks. “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,” he announced. “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.”
Lest the country forget that it was at war, however, Lincoln suggested that Thanksgiving would be an occasion not just to celebrate bounty but to grieve loss. He enjoined Americans to “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.” Together, he said, citizens would “implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation."
And for “peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union,” Lincoln proposed, Americans could be thankful.