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One of the many touchstones by which Thanksgiving is remembered and recharged is the proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on Oct. 3, 1863, that declared the final Thursday of the month of November as a national holiday.
Before that time, only Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July were national holidays.
A few days before that occasion, on September 28, 1863, Sarah Hale, a magazine editor and the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” had written him a letter that gave so many future generations this day of rest and contemplation.
Hale had been campaigning for 17 years for a Thanksgiving holiday and had written to many other Presidents on this subject to no avail.
“Permit me to request a few moments of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and I trust even to the President of our Republic of some importance,” she began.
She enclosed an editorial from her magazine, the “Lady’s Book,” that argued for the benefits of such a day not only for our own sake, but also for everybody else’s.
“The influence of these state seasons of sacred remembrances, high aspirations, and tender . . . rejoicings would not only be salutary on the character of our own citizens, but the world would be made better . . . ,” she wrote. “If the germ of good feeling be ever so deeply buried under ‘the cares, and riches and pleasures of this life,’ it may be brought out by sympathy and vivified by culture and effort.”
Along with the Hale’s persistence and pluck, Lincoln may have been influenced by the idea of a unifying national holiday, held on the same day “in all the states.”
A few days later, Lincoln granted the petitioners request with one of his most eloquent compositions and followed up with a legislative fix.
Lincoln’s thanks was given well before the end of the Civil War, but perhaps it was his prescience as well as optimism that put him in a thanksgiving mood. Still more than 15 months away from victory, the tide of war had changed.
A few weeks later, he would deliver the magnificent Gettysburg Address commemorating the brave men who consecrate a battleground with their lives. Lincoln was arguably nearing the peak of his rhetorical powers.
“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” he wrote in a soaring opening line of his Thanksgiving proclamation.
We take so many things like these for granted, Lincoln suggested, which is the simplest expression of the deepest meaning of the day of thanks that he was proclaiming. So many things are taken for granted that it takes a full stop and a time of reflection “to penetrate and soften” the hardest heart.
This is true even in the midst of an enormous convulsion “of unequaled magnitude and severity,” as Lincoln called the situation before him, a time of agony that few of us a century and a half later have ever experienced.
Until Gettysburg, which was the bloodiest imaginable victory, there were few positive accomplishments to show for all the material advantages the North possessed, a state of affairs, “which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression,” as he noted in the proclamation.
October 1863 was three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, probably the greatest and most decisive battle of the war. Gen. Robert E. Lee and his army had fallen back to the south, after their most potent strike in the north. They may have thought the setback was only temporary. But when the news reached a hesitant London, the hope of foreign intervention on behalf of the South was lost.
With his faith and his uncanny sense of destiny, Lincoln somehow knew there was a great deal to be thankful for.
He looked around and saw the bustle of industry and the promise of prosperity. Appropriately, Lincoln invoked the highest power as the object of his gratitude. Whatever form that idea may take for us today, it is worth reflecting upon again.
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.” Lincoln wrote. “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.”