President Lincoln issued the first American Thanksgiving Proclamation for the “gracious gifts of the most high” who “has remembered us with mercy,” in 1863 before the last guns of the Civil War were ceased. He proposed the fourth Thursday in November for this celebration. (A century later, presidents would often move the date back to assist retailers, allowing more time for Christmas shopping).
As a child I remember dressing up in white aprons and Pilgrim hats to recreate the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 near Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, a matter of wishful thinking. My mother would read a story for children she’d written about that event for, based on the way the story had been told to her. We have gotten a more complete picture since.
More than a century and a half earlier, George Washington also proposed a Thanksgiving celebration in 1789 after Revolutionary warfare had ceased and the Treaty of Paris signed (1883).
But annual celebrations were inconsistent UNTIL President Lincoln declared a federal holiday and encouraged Americans to celebrate in unison: “It seemed for me fit and proper that it (Thanksgiving) should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the American people.” (Words written by Secretary of State William Seward) If it was good enough for Lincoln and the Americans who were coming out of the Civil War, so might it be for us today?
We often forget, or maybe never knew, that Lincoln used Secretary Seward’s words because he remained in his bed after contracting smallpox at the time of the Gettysburg Address in Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863. The nation then also experienced the threat of fatal disease.
“I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, at sea, and living abroad, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving . . .to heal the wounds of war and to restore as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to thee full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”
In 2020, one hundred and fifty-seven years later, we Americans find ourselves once again divided, not North-South, but politically so that in some places the division is within households, between spouses, neighbors, and friends who struggle to find common ground. For some this is not based on philosophy, or dogma, but on the parsing of “facts” that may or may not be. May we test the waters for one day and find what we HAVE in common.
This is America’s prayer for Thanksgiving to appreciate what we have accomplished together as a nation. To acknowledge the combined efforts of each and every one, for example, the newborns and students who give us hope for the future, mothers and fathers who have the honor and the responsibility to create the next generation, teachers who instill a love of learning, generation X and Z already seeking solutions, the military who are on the frontlines in war and disasters, and the health care workers all over America working round the clock to assist the Covid patients. Thanksgiving for all the families who share them with us, cooks who prepare healthy meals, those who make products to help us be productive and think about what comes next, those who help us maintain our bodies (gyms and pools), workers who build our homes, fix our cars, preserve and restore our health, and volunteers everywhere who spread their human glue to hold it all together. Thank you each and everyone.
This comes as a reminder that Americans have been in tight places before. Somehow, through Providence, hard work, or sheer luck, we’ve succeeded as a nation—always with room to do and be better, but we stuck together.
Lincoln, like other Presidents after him who did not want to frighten their constituents, suffered alone and came under greater physical threat from disease than we originally knew, according to recent scholarship.
We now know that Lincoln had a fever, became dizzy, very pale, suffered severe headaches, and back pains and felt ill prior to delivering the address at Gettysburg. His valet, William Johnson, a black man who went with Lincoln to Gettysburg, contracted smallpox after serving Lincoln there, and died of the disease upon his return. The President mourned the loss of Johnson in Washington and he himself did not recover for three weeks, not in time for the Thanksgiving he proclaimed. Lincoln began to feel himself around December 10, in time to prepare for Christmas and pray for peace the following year.
Peace would not come until April 1865, the same week in which Lincoln died of an assassin’s bullet. But after Gettysburg Lincoln was able to see the Emancipation Proclamation begin to take effect and by 1865 be believed that the country would remain unified and eventually become one again. Had he not survived 1863, the outcome might have been different. For that we can be truly thankful and pray again that America’s people look at the glass half full, instead of half empty, and work together to fill it up.
P.S. We may be on the brink of an even more difficult moment, but again, ours is a strong nation, created by strong minds and stronger people. This division did not occur over night and it won’t be resolved quickly. But small steps, like finding areas of common interest, being willing to see what can be achieved together, might help begin a reconciliation between those willing to bridge the gap. That could be how Americans slowly emerge from their bunkers and begin the painful process of rebuilding trust and believing again that we can find ways, however small, to work towards being one nation again.