Thanksgiving Day: Following in the footsteps of President Lincoln Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

Editor's View by Mary C. Uhler

We usually think of Thanksgiving Day as hearkening back to the story of the Pilgrims and Indians in the 17th century. Certainly the observance of a day of thanksgiving in our country does trace its origins back to the harvest feast held in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621.

However, what many of us may not know is that the official proclamation of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday happened in the middle of the American Civil War. Perhaps with our own “civil war” of sorts happening in 2012, in the aftermath of a contentious election, it might be worth noting what President Abraham Lincoln said at that time.

Persistent efforts lead to proclamation

President Lincoln was prompted to proclaim Thanksgiving as a holiday by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, an American writer who lived from 1788 to 1879.

Before Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving had previously been celebrated only in New England. Each state scheduled its own holiday, some as early as October and others as late as January; it was largely unknown in the American South.

Sarah Hale persevered in her advocacy for the national holiday for 17 years before it was successful. She wrote letters to five presidents of the United States: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln.

While failing with the first four presidents, her letter to President Lincoln did convince him to support legislation establishing Thanksgiving. The new national holiday was considered a unifying day after the stress of the Civil War.

President Lincoln’s words

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. In the proclamation, he said the year of 1863 had been “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” He said that we are “prone to forget the source from which they come,” which he says is  “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

President Lincoln says that 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.

He observes that the country has continued to go on with life. “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 had 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.” He mentions that the country’s population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the “waste” of those who died in the Civil War.

Gives credit to God

In the most important part of the proclamation, President Lincoln gives credit to God. “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.”

The president asks Americans to set aside the day of Thanksgiving to give praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” He “fervently” implores “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.”

Take words to heart today

Let’s take these words to heart today by continuing the tradition of Thanksgiving Day begun by President Lincoln, especially keeping God the focus of our observances.

This should be a day to give praise and thanks to God, to heal the strife in our nation, to move forward united in a common purpose, and to seek God’s blessings on our nation.