On Lincoln and giving thanks

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want."

Giving thanks — to God, to some higher power, to nature, to others in society for their beneficial actions — has been a practice of people around the world for centuries. Early French and Spanish settlers in the 16th century in North America expressed gratitude for nature’s bounty, notably during the harvest season in early fall. By 1607, colonists in Jamestown, Virginia held services giving thanks for surviving in the harsh environment of the New World. President George Washington was the first American head of state to proclaim a day of thanks in 1789, but it was President Abraham Lincoln who made the day an official federal holiday for our country.

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1863

In the months following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln announced in 1863 that the nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 26 of that year. Despite the bloodshed and turmoil of the Civil War, Lincoln had much to be thankful for. Not only had the Union prevailed at Gettysburg — which could have turned the tide of war in favor of the Confederacy — they had also achieved victory under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that July at the crucial Battle of Vicksburg, which began the steady disintegration of the Confederate Army as the Union controlled large portions of its lifeline, the Mississippi River. Lincoln said this day of celebration would give “…Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…” to be commemorated on the last Thursday of November. In the early 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt changed the date for Thanksgiving amid much controversy, but by 1942, the U.S. Congress proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day would be on the fourth Thursday of November. It has been celebrated on that day ever since.

Lincoln’s words resonated with a nation weary of years of horrific strife and fracturing which could easily have destroyed the government the Founding Fathers established. Although his proclamation might be considered by some to be flowery rhetoric, even overtly religious, it was a necessary tonic to millions afflicted by the wounds of war. In the film “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”, the main character Ben Gates is speaking to the president as they search for clues to a centuries-old mystery. Gates tells him that Lincoln is his favorite president and that Americans think their public officials are honorable men, pursuing worthy goals. The president says: “People don’t believe that stuff anymore.” Gates responds: “They want to believe it.” Although Lincoln had many reasons to be pessimistic, even fearful, of the nation crumbling around him, he took the time to proclaim a day when people could give thanks for what they do have.

Despite periods of turmoil, natural disasters, political unrest and even the Great Depression, Americans have taken time out to celebrate the many gifts we have been given. Artist Norman Rockwell, during the darkest days of World War II, created his “Four Freedoms” series, his painting “Freedom from Want” depicting a family gathered around the dinner table to celebrate Thanksgiving, a scene which brings comfort to many who view it. So this Thanksgiving, take time with family and friends to give thanks for the many gifts, the simple pleasures and blessings we all enjoy.

About Gene Pisasale

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pa. His eight books and historic lecture series focus on the history of the mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System, which delves into the life and many accomplishments of this important Founding Father who almost single-handedly transformed our nation from a bankrupt entity into the most successful country in the history of mankind. Gene’s books are available on www.Amazon.com. His website is www.GenePisasale.com; he can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.



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