Blue background and red and white wavy stripes with white stars. Headshot of CEO David Harmer. Text on the image reads, "We the People of the United States, in Order to Form A More Perfect Union."

By David Harmer

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”

The year was 1863.

“To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added . . .”

It was the midpoint of the Civil War—the most sanguinary conflict in our nation’s history, costing as many American lives as all other wars from the Revolution through Vietnam.

“. . . 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.”

Of the 4.4 million African-Americans counted in the 1860 census, 4 million were enslaved. Three years later, notwithstanding the Emancipation Proclamation and the advances of the Union armies, the great majority of them remained captive. For them, for those fighting to restore the Union and free them, for the tens of thousands of widowed and orphaned and their loved ones, what was there to be thankful for?

“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.”

President Lincoln bore the unfathomable weight of the war, but saw beyond it.

“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.”

Beyond security, beyond prosperity, lay an even greater blessing:

“The country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

Freedom had been attained and enjoyed by some. Now the entire country could expect it. In the lengthy list of blessings with which President Lincoln opened his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, that was the culmination: the 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 [. . . .] They should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged.”

Days of thanksgiving had been celebrated before: most famously in 1621, by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag; occasionally in the various colonies; annually throughout the Revolutionary War, as designated by the Continental Congress; in 1789, as proclaimed by the recently inaugurated President Washington. Presidents Adams and Madison declared thanksgiving observances as well. But after Madison we find no record of a national thanksgiving—until Lincoln.

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens [. . .] 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.”

Thanksgiving Day as we celebrate it now—annually, nationwide, every November—began with President Lincoln’s Proclamation 160 years ago.

“And I recommend to them that [. . .] 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.”

We Americans are indisputably proficient at celebrating Thanksgiving Day as a harvest feast. Are we equally proficient at honoring the occasion’s roots and purpose?

  • Do we enumerate the blessings of the year that is drawing toward its close?
  • Might it be said of us, as President Lincoln said of our predecessors, that we are prone to forget the source from which our bounties come?
  • Does the contemplation of that source penetrate and soften our hearts?
  • Do we acknowledge our bounties, especially our freedoms, as gracious gifts?
  •  Does our thanksgiving include humble penitence?
  • Do we remember those who mourn or suffer?
  • Do we fervently implore the Almighty to heal the wounds of the nation?
  • Do we seek peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union?

These invitations and recommendations have been echoed by President Lincoln’s successors to the present day.

On behalf of the entire staff of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, I wish you a joyful and meaningful Thanksgiving.

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