Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1863
Though previous presidents (George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison) had made thanksgiving proclamations (see www.pilgrimhall.org), the holiday was essentially a regional observance until 1863. In this year, Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, wrote an inspiring 1863 editorial appealing for a national holiday.
President Lincoln responded that year by setting aside the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving. Lincoln’s proclamation has special significance when considered in its context. America was in the midst of a Civil War. Though the tide of war had begun to change, there had been a tremendous loss of life on both sides. And it would be two more long years before the Civil War would end.
During this difficult time in American history, President Lincoln sought to begin the healing process for a divided nation with a call to unite in giving thanks to God. Historian David Barton notes that this “remarkable Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a pivotal point in Lincoln’s spiritual life. Three months earlier, the Battle of Gettysburg had occurred, resulting in the loss of some 60,000 American lives. It had been while Lincoln was walking among the thousands of graves there at Gettysburg that he first committed his life to Christ” (www.wallbuilders.com).
Lincoln wrote in a letter to a clergyman:
“When I left Springfield [Illinois, to assume the Presidency], I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, G.W. Carleton adn Company, 1882, p. 366).
For the next 75 years, American presidents faithfully followed Lincoln’s precedent and annually declared a national Thanksgiving Day. However, dates varied, so in 1941 Congress permanently established the fourth Thursday of November as the national Thanksgiving holiday.
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 if, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, 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.