The human tradition of thanksgiving runs back to ancient times as a celebration of bountiful harvests and the need to be respectful to whatever gods or supernatural forces were thought to have made them possible. It is a tradition that took special root in a religious and fruitful America from the earliest days of European settlement.
The establishment of Thanksgiving as a permanent national holiday, set for late November, is credited to President Abraham Lincoln. It was a time of war, with some people celebrating the safe return of loved ones and others suffering from separation or mourning permanent loss. Everyone from the president on down was in need of a reminder that there was still much in the world to be thankful for.
Note that, though he was then a wartime president, commander in chief of what was then the world’s largest army, Lincoln’s proclamation orders nothing. He invites. He recommends. His call upon the Almighty Hand was not to win the war, but to restore the nation to peace and harmony after human agencies had settled the dispute.
Lincoln’s unblinking honesty did not allow him to forget the woes of the world, nor the continued needs and pains of those less fortunate. In that, as well as in his recognition of the many things we have to be grateful for, we should continue to emulate him.
In that spirit, we reproduce President Lincoln’s original Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day, dated Oct. 3, 1863.
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 had 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 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.”
— A. Lincoln