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I first read today’s quote in a fourth grade classroom seated next to a girl who claimed descent from George Washington. I suspected the claim at the time because George Washington had no biological children, but President Washington effectively adopted two of Martha Washington’s children, so, maybe. The Civil War was over two years old and the ravaged nation could see no end in sight. The proclamation below managed to acknowledge the ongoing ordeal while placing it in the context of Providence.
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
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
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
The words, we know today, were penned by Seward. We have the initial draft in his hand. Obviously, Lincoln endorsed them and made them his own. I draw on this moment for today’s quote not just for the place of this speech in establishing Thanksgiving as a permanent national holiday, but it was a moment of crisis for the republic such as we have not seen since. And in that moment of crisis Lincoln directs our gaze to our blessings and to the Divine hand that gives. And takes away.
This year has seen crises either hyped into hysteria or gaslighted out of existence, but history provides some perspective. A sound assessment of conditions is necessary to effectively address those conditions as needed. We need to be as stalwart and steadfast as those earlier Americans to right this ship and once again lead the free world, as always, with the Lord’s help. I humbly call on the people of this great republic this day to take stock of their blessings and bless those around them. Please feel free to share those blessings below, as the spirit moves you.
This was not the beginning of the Thanksgiving tradition, by any means. That is usually attributed to Plymouth Colony in October of 1621. Other presidents had previously declared a day of thanksgiving in the harvest season. And various states and counties over the years took up such a celebration. When was the first American Thanksgiving? Just down the road from me at Berkeley Plantation, VA, in October 1619, of course. From a piece by Wilford Kale in Wednesday’s Williamsburg Gazette:
On instructions from The London Co., when the settlers landed at Berkeley Hundred, ship Capt. John Woodlief, in a solemn religious observance, prayed: “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving for Almighty God.”
There were no Indians at this one because the settlers landed in and established Jamestown in a fever-ridden pesthole that the Indians avoided because it was obviously cursed. In this day of the virus, it is interesting to remember that the first surviving English colonial settlement, Jamestown, suffered fatalities due to illness approaching 50% of the population per year. In 1610 there was a drought and they suffered 80-90% losses. It was not unusual for a new arrival to be taken sick for up to five years before their immune system successfully conquered the many endemiological hazards of the Tidewater area. They were not deterred.
Our nation has endured worse and will endure this. The plough, the shuttle, the ship, and the axe will be worked, the hungry will be fed, the sick will be cared for, and Americans will continue to fight for the promised freedoms that generations of settlers have come here to realize. Our shackles will fall away, and our better angels will lead us home.
God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.Published in