November 21, 2012
The President's Thanksgiving Proclamations

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

One morning in October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln received a visit from William Henry Seward. Although he’s no longer a household name, Seward was a political titan of his time – a governor and United States Senator from New York.

By the late 1850s, Seward seemed destined for the White House. But when Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Seward became his Secretary of State. As a testament to both men’s character, the former political rivals put aside their differences and developed a close friendship.

On that October morning of 1863, Seward came to Lincoln with an idea: Seward told Lincoln that he ought to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving.

The idea of Thanksgiving wasn’t exactly new. As school kids we all learned about the Pilgrims’ legendary feast in 1621 with their Native American friends. But while that is now universally recognized as the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims’ celebration did not bring us to the national holiday as we now know it.

After the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, the idea of setting aside a special day to give thanks was occasionally observed in various parts of the country, but there was no formal, annual holiday.

George Washington was the first president to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving. In his proclamation, Washington urged Americans to give thanks for the newly ratified Constitution as one of the many blessings bestowed upon the country.

But subsequent presidents did not keep the tradition alive. By the time Seward came to Lincoln with his idea, Thanksgiving was sporadically celebrated on different days at the discretion of each state’s governor. “Why not make it a national holiday?” Seward asked.

Lincoln responded that he supposed a president “had as good a right to thank God as a Governor.”

Looking back, 1863 seems an unlikely year to declare a national day of thanksgiving. Our nation has never witnessed a more difficult time. With the luxury of hindsight, we know that the Civil War – which began in 1861 – would be over in two years. But the people living through it had no way of knowing when it would end; to them, it felt like the middle of forever.

Nor did they know how it would end. Would the union be preserved? Would the deep wounds ever heal?

And yet, in the shadows of gloom cast by that gruesome war, while hundreds-of-thousands of Americans were being killed and maimed on the battlefields, Lincoln and Seward found reason to give thanks.

Lincoln’s proclamation began: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties ... 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.”

Lincoln’s message was clear: while the nation had endured unimaginable hardships, Americans still had many blessings to count. Taking no credit for these blessings, Lincoln declared: “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.”

The proclamation commended to God’s care “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers,” as a result of the war, and called on God “to heal the wounds of the nation” and restore it to “peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”

The next year, Lincoln followed with another Thanksgiving proclamation. He once again appointed the last Thursday in November as a “day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.”

Finally seeing an end to the war, Lincoln wrote that God has inspired “our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions.”

That would be Lincoln’s last Thanksgiving proclamation; he was assassinated in April 1865, just as the war was ending and his second term was commencing. And Thanksgiving might have ended there. But happily, when Lincoln’s vice president – Andrew Johnson – took over, he carried on Lincoln’s tradition.

Johnson issued his own proclamation in 1865, thus maintaining an unbroken chain of Thanksgiving proclamations that stretches from Lincoln’s first proclamation in 1863 all the way through every president who has ever held the office.

The proclamations are as different as the presidents who write them. Some presidents are rather wordy while others keep it short. Some keep the message general while other presidents mention specific events from the year.

For instance, when Teddy Roosevelt became president after William McKinley’s assassination, his proclamation for 1901 said, “This Thanksgiving finds the people still bowed with sorrow for the death of a great and good President.”  Andrew Johnson, on the other hand, didn’t mention Lincoln’s assassination in his proclamation, focusing instead on the “blessings of peace, unity, and harmony” that accompanied the end of the Civil War.

But no matter how different each proclamation is, all of them in their way invite all Americans, wherever they may be, to set aside the day to gather in their homes or “various places of worship and devoutly” give thanks to God for the many blessings of liberty and prosperity bestowed upon the United States.

Lincoln’s first proclamation ended with these words: “Done at the city of Washington, this 3rd day of October, A.D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.” Every one since then has followed suit – naming the date of the proclamation and marking the year since our independence – a fitting way to keep count of this “beautiful American tradition.”

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.