Amidst a raging Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” on October 3, 1863, 74 years to the day after President George Washington issued his first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation.
Prior to Lincoln’s proclamation, states, mostly in the North, would mark their own Thanksgiving commemorations.
The concept for a national Thanksgiving celebrated annually came from Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine. Hale pointed out in a letter to Lincoln only a week before the proclamation was made official that the public had been manifesting increasing interest in one national holiday. She correctly predicted that if it was given official, national sanction, it would “…become permanently, an American custom and institution.”
Lincoln delegated the drafting of the Thanksgiving Proclamation to Secretary of State William H. Seward. As the Civil War was coming to its end 16 months later, Seward was almost assassinated the same night President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater. He would go on to purchase Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7 million—derided at the time as “Seward’s Folly.”
Seward, as with many of the writers of the day, never used one or two words when four or five would do. His Thanksgiving Proclamation weighs in at 469 words with two key excerpts below providing its essence:
By the President of the United States of America.
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…
…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…
But what if President Lincoln himself had drafted the Thanksgiving Proclamation? How might it have read?
We can get an idea from Lincoln’s writing at its peak with his Gettysburg Address, delivered a little more than six weeks after the official issuance of the Thanksgiving Proclamation, to dedicate the soldiers’ cemetery at the site of the great battle fought there only four months before.
In only 271 words, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address summarized America’s mission statement, a “…nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Prior to Lincoln’s short remarks, for which the partisan press roundly criticized him, former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and House member, and Massachusetts Gov. Edward Everett, considered the nation’s best orator, gave a two-hour speech totaling 13,607 words. Later, Everett, impressed with Lincoln’s concise remarks, wrote to him saying, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Here then, is the Lincoln Thanksgiving Proclamation that might have been:
Three score and 14 years ago, President Washington recognized “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God…”
Now in this time of testing, as it is in times of abundance, we are right to be mindful of God’s grace and favor—and that, while he is a just God, to be thankful for his mercy. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this as individuals and as a nation.
I invite my fellow citizens to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our Father above. And I recommend that while justly praising Him for our blessings, that they also ask for His tender care for the widows and orphans, mourners and the injured. And to give us the strength and the wisdom to complete this great task before us and to treat our fellow-countrymen, both South and North, with compassion that the Almighty Hand would heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it with a full measure of freedom for all.
As Presidents Washington and Lincoln implored to their fellow Americans in their day, let all of us find some moments amongst the family gatherings, the football, the turkey, and the travel, to be thankful for what we have—and thankful for living in America.