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Mr. Lincoln Proclaims a Day of Thanksgiving!

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

November 22, 2023

On September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter. The addressee: President Abraham Lincoln. Why? She was advocating a day of national thanksgiving as way to foster unification during a divisive time.

This was not the first letter she had written on the subject. Over the years she had written hundreds of similar missives to the country’s leaders including state governors and previous presidents (Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan) – all to no avail. However, she was not one to give up easily. She even suggested to Lincoln a date for such a celebration: the last Thursday in November. Ever efficient, she included a reminder that a proclamation would be needed immediately in order to timely complete all actions required for such a November event to occur.

Unlike his predecessors, Lincoln did not ignore her. In fact, he acted immediately, issuing the following proclamation within days of her letter:

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

Hale just so happened to have a friend who “had the president’s ear” - Secretary of State Seward. He also had received a letter from Hale; one is which she asked him “to confer with Lincoln on the subject.” Seward did more than that; he wrote “much of the proclamation.” Seward had outlined such a proclamation - which he and Lincoln then worked on together “to perfect.” Reading the proclamation, one sees thoughts and words later utilized by Lincoln in other major speeches.

Hale, the “Editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, had anti-slavery views and, as such, was unpopular with many Southern leaders. They did not like the idea of a holiday with Northern ties. Yet, timing is everything. Two major Union victories – Gettysburg and Vicksburg - were still fresh in the nation’s memory. What better time to issue a proclamation to “give thanks on behalf on the entire American people, including those at war with the United States.”

Note that the proclamation celebrates one nation, not two.

Lincoln’s proclamation provided the precedent for our national day of Thanksgiving. Both Hale and Lincoln envisioned such a holiday not only as a day to give thanks but also as a time for reflection. As we gather together this Thanksgiving, in our own divisive time, we should remember this dual purpose of the day.

(Editor’s note: A longer version of this article is found in the Fall 2020 edition of The Lincolnian, the quarterly publication of the LGDC.)

Graphic credit: This Thomas Nast illustration, "Thanksgiving Day 1863," appeared in the December 5, 1863, edition of Harper's Weekly.


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