‘One heart and one voice’: Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation in a divided time

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, an election has left the country politically divided. A pandemic has left many families physically divided.

In fact, Thanksgiving as a national holiday springs from the most bitter of national divisions: the Civil War.

Before that, there were sporadic regional celebrations for many years. As all schoolchildren know, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag shared a feast in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. And there were even earlier feasts of thanksgiving in Florida, Texas, Virginia and Maine.

George Washington was the first president to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving, one time only on Oct. 3, 1789.

But it was Sarah Josepha Hale, a renowned 19th-century lady’s magazine editor, who first suggested an annual national holiday. For 17 years, she wrote to four presidents, dozens of governors and other elected officials suggesting a national holiday of gratitude to bring the country together. Few of them responded to her.

Finally, Abraham Lincoln received her letter in the middle of the Civil War, and he loved the idea.

The first page of Sarah Josepha Hale’s letter to President Abraham Lincoln, imploring him that a “day of our annual Thanksgiving [be] made a National and fixed Union Festival.” (The Papers of Abraham Lincoln/Library of Congress)

On Oct. 3, 1863, three score and 14 years to the day after Washington’s proclamation, he released one of his own, designating the fourth Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving. Though Lincoln was a poet and could certainly write a moving speech — he would deliver the Gettysburg Address six weeks later — the text of the proclamation was drafted by then-Secretary of State William Seward.

Between 600,000 to 850,000 Americans died in the Civil War — most of them of disease. This year, we live in divided times again, and more than 250,000 have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the United States. The words of the proclamation to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation” resonate anew.

Here is the proclamation in full. Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.

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.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe 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 battle-field; 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 it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes 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 Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

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