Wednesday, November 27, 2013
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Special feature from LDN's Home for the Holidays magazine

What does President Lincoln have to do with Thanksgiving today?

By Anne Moseley

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[November 27, 2013]  When we think of Thanksgiving today, various images of Pilgrims and Indians, eating turkey, families getting together, and the large amount of shopping to be done on Black Friday come to mind. Most Americans do not tend to think of President Abraham Lincoln and his contribution to Thanksgiving.

Throughout our nation's history, Thanksgiving has been a day set aside in the autumn when people give thanks for what they have been given. This tradition has progressed from when America was founded to today, when we sit down and celebrate with our family and friends. Today we focus on the family and the food, but during the Civil War, Thanksgiving espoused the importance of reflection, silence and prayer.

Throughout Lincoln's presidency, he issued numerous proclamations, most pertaining to the Civil War. But, looking at his writings as president, there are nine proclamations urging the American population to take a day to pray, reflect and repent.

The first one was issued Aug. 12, 1861, in response to Congress. The "Proclamation of a National Fast Day" for the last Thursday in September encouraged Americans to make it a day of "public humiliation, prayer and fasting, to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnities, and the offering of fervent supplications to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessings on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace."1

This proclamation was issued 3 1/2 months after the attack on Fort Sumter. By that time 11 states had seceded from the Union, and in May, Lincoln's good friend Col. Elmer Ellsworth had become the first officer to die in the war. U.S. Gen. McDowell was also replaced by Gen. George B. McClellan (he proved to be a problem for Lincoln during the Civil War). President Lincoln called for the support and faith of the American people to pray for peace and a speedy end to the war.

Lincoln's second proclamation of thanksgiving was made Nov. 28, 1861.2 This time the president ordered governmental departments to be closed for a local day of thanksgiving. On this day he invited his good friend Joshua Speed and his wife and others to a dinner at the White House. It was not our typical Thanksgiving meal, but a meal that gave the president a chance to reflect, along with his fellow Americans, on what he was thankful for, such as his friends and family.

During the same month when Lincoln made the presidential order, he also continued to deal with growing tensions between the United States and Great Britain. This was caused by the Union navy seizing Confederate commissioners to Great Britain and France from the British steamer Trent, leading to what we know as the Trent Affair.

It was not until April 10, 1862, that President Lincoln issued another proclamation, a "Proclamation of Thanksgiving for Victories," that displayed a compassion for both the Union and Confederates. In this proclamation, he implored "spiritual consolations in behalf of all who have been brought into affliction by the casualties and calamities of sedition and civil war."3 He called on the American people to take time to remember they were all Americans affected by this great tragedy of war.

Lincoln made another similar proclamation three months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. On March 30, 1863, he issued the "Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day." In this act, he again called on the American people to "confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord."4

This continued until the victory at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, which led President Lincoln to declare "a day for National Thanksgiving, Praise, and Prayer" (Aug. 6, 1863). He asked "the People of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship, and in the forms approved by their own consciences, render the homage due to the Divine Majesty, for the wonderful things he has done in the Nation's behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger, which has produced, and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion, to change the hearts of the insurgents, to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency."5

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As a result of this proclamation, Lincoln received an interesting letter from a woman by the name of Sarah J. Hale. She wrote:

"As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag – could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to 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? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established."6

Sarah Hale, whose letter is preserved in the Library of Congress, was the editor of a women's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, and was determined to have a national day of Thanksgiving.

With President Lincoln's numerous proclamations and requests for thanksgiving and fasting, Mrs. Hale believed that if there was going to be a national day of Thanksgiving, Lincoln was the man who could make it happen.

She finally found the result she sought. On Oct. 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamation asking the American people 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."7 In this proclamation he asked for prayer for "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged."8

This was an act that, again, Lincoln used as a way of uniting the American people to care for one another.

By 1864 Lincoln felt that the country needed to be reminded of the reasons to be thankful. He issued two more proclamations. In the first one, issued on May 9, 1864, he asked for thanksgiving and prayer for recent successful operations of the army, and the second, issued on July 7, 1864, was the "Proclamation of a Day of Prayer." These two proclamations were very similar to the proclamations he made at the beginning of the war. He used days of thanksgiving to unite the country and remind the American people what they were fighting for.

But it was not until Oct. 24, 1864, that President Lincoln finally created the "Proclamation of Thanksgiving," which set the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving. Upon this proclamation, editor Sarah Hale summed up the day perfectly in her article "Our National Thanksgiving":

"On the twenty-fourth of this month recurs the Day – ‘The last Thursday in November' – which has now become firmly established as one of the three National Festivals of America. ‘The Birth of Washington,' which brings before all minds the example of the patriot hero and the Christian man; ‘Independence Day,' which reminds us of the free principles on which our Government was founded; and ‘Thanksgiving Day,' which lifts our hearts to Heaven in grateful devotion, and knits them together in bonds of social affection are three anniversaries such as no other People have the good fortune to enjoy. We fervently trust that, so long as the nation endures, these three Festivals will continue to be observed with an ever deepening sense of their beauty and value."9

This Thanksgiving, I hope you remember President Lincoln's nine proclamations of prayer and thanksgiving and Mrs. Sarah J. Hale's words of thanksgiving. Take the time to be truly thankful for what you have and for the sacrifices that made them possible.

Happy Thanksgiving, from the Lincoln Heritage Museum.

[By ANNE MOSELEY, Lincoln Heritage Museum]

1 Lincoln, Abraham, "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865"

2 Lincoln, Abraham, "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865"

3 Lincoln, Abraham, "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865"

4 Lincoln, Abraham, "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865"

5 Lincoln, Abraham, "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865"

6 Hale, Sarah Josephine. Library of Congress, Manuscript Collection.

7 Lincoln, Abraham, "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865"

8 Lincoln, Abraham, "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865"

9 Hale, Sarah J. "Our National Thanksgiving." Godey's Lady's Book. November 1864.

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