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The meaning of Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

This Thursday, families across the nation will gather together at the table to give thanks for the things we have been given. Thanksgiving Day is a venerable and much beloved holiday. In colonial times, it was primarily a harvest feast in which the colonists offered thanks for a good harvest, sometimes by feasting, sometimes by fasting. The first national day of Thanksgiving was declared by the Continental Congress in November 1777, following the Colonial victories over British General John Burgoyne in the Battles of Saratoga. Twelves years later, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation under the new Constitution, proclaiming a day to be devoted to “public thanksgiving and prayer.” Thanksgiving did not become an annual tradition, though, until Abraham Lincoln set aside a day of thanks in 1863 to celebrate the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Since then, every American president has followed suit and given a Thanksgiving proclamation.

But as we prepare to celebrate the day–to give thanks–we must ask: What is it that we celebrate on Thanksgiving? For what do we give thanks? Is the holiday distinctly American? And, if so, why? Is it a political holiday, or a private one?

Fortunately, our friends over at What So Proudly We Hail have prepared another holiday ebook to help us discuss just these sorts of questions: The Meaning of Thanksgiving. The booklet is composed of American short stories, speeches, and songs by authors and statesman such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Greenleaf Whittier, Jack London, Langston Hughes, O. Henry, and more.

Today, take a look at Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, complete with the editors’ introduction:

Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) issued this proclamation for a day of national thanksgiving in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, not long after the battle of Gettysburg and several other Union successes seemed to have turned the tide toward a Union victory. Like so many of his famous speeches, this modest presidential proclamation displays the extraordinary understanding, statesmanship, and generosity of soul that distinguished the sixteenth President of the United States. Read the proclamation slowly, paragraph by paragraph and line by line, in order to discern what Lincoln is hoping to teach the nation. How does his beginning capture the audience’s sympathy? What, exactly, are the blessings for which he believes that thanksgiving is in order, even “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity”? Why does he believe that, despite the human “waste” of the war, the country may be permitted to “expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom”? What is his understanding of “the Most High God,” His relation to the United States, and “our sins”? Imagining yourself a Confederate auditor of this proclamation; would you be inclined to accept the invitation and recommendation Lincoln offers in the long fifth paragraph to “my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States”? Is Lincoln’s case for “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father” still persuasive today?

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. 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 can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax 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. 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.

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.

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. 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, 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, and fervently implore 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, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.


For more on the meaning and history of Thanksgiving, head over to What So Proudly We Hail.