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Lincoln and Thanksgiving

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Before you enjoy your holiday meal tomorrow, take a moment to think of Lincoln and his role in the creation of the national celebration we know as Thanksgiving.

For years Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, supported the idea of a national day of Thanksgiving. (She is shown in the photo to the left.) In a divided time, she saw such an event as a means of fostering unification. To this end, Sarah wrote editorials and hundreds of letters to leaders - governors of states and territories, ministers abroad, missionaries and naval commanders - in support of her idea. She sent correspondence on the subject to presidents starting with Taylor and continuing to Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. None of these presidents acted on her suggestion. However, she persisted.

Sarah even wrote to “her friend,” Secretary of State Seward, asking him to confer with Lincoln on the subject. Her suggestion was to have Lincoln “appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State” and thus establish “a great Festival of Union.”

The Request: Finally, on September 28, 1863, she wrote to Abraham Lincoln himself. Her goal: “to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” Her letter to Lincoln, in part, reads:

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Her letter further:

entreats President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

She also reminded Lincoln that an immediate proclamation would be necessary for timely completion of the actions needed to make such an event happen in time for the proposed November date.

The Response: Lincoln did not ignore her. In fact, his response was immediate. His proclamation, establishing the precedent for our national day of Thanksgiving, is printed below.

Washington, D.C. October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards 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 cannot 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 unequalled 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre 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 defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe 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 battle-field; 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 Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward, Secretary of State

In a November 24, 1919 article in The Washington Post, author Ted Widmer related some of the behind the scenes actions involving Lincoln’s proclamation. William Seward did more than just confer with Lincoln on the subject – he .actually wrote much of the proclamation. Ever prepared, he already had written an outline of such a proclamation, one which he and Lincoln worked on together “to perfect.”

Frederick Seward, in his father’s memoirs, described the conversation on the subject. Visiting the President at work, Seward suggested in that the South always was accusing the United States of “stealing away the rights of the States,” they “at least should steal something valuable.” Lincoln agreed with the idea of the theft of “the right to name Thanksgiving Day … as one national holiday all over the country.” Ever the lawyer, Lincoln added the holiday was “a custom, not a law,” so, as President, he had “as good a right to thank God as a Governor.”

After two recent Union victories - Gettysburg and Vicksburg - the timing was right for a proclamation to “give thanks on behalf of the entire American people, including those at war against the United States." The proclamation “importantly celebrates one nation, not two.” Moreover, the document includes thoughts and words contained in later memorable speeches by Lincoln.

Sarah Josepha Hale, remembered in history as “The Mother of Thanksgiving” – and Lincoln - had a vision of a national holiday not only as a day for giving thanks but also as a time for reflection. As we gather to give thanks this year, may we too take a moment for reflection.

(Editor's note: In addition to the article by Widmer, an additional source for this article is The Better Angels: Five Women Who Changed Civil War America, Robert C. Plumb (Potomac Books, 2020) A longer version of this article appeared in the Fall 2020 Lincolnian newsletter.)

(Sarah Josepha Hale Photo Credit: Library of Congress)


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