Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving lessons

Sure, things look bad now. But compare today's plight to what our Civil-War-ravaged nation faced during the first official Thanksgiving in 1863

David Frum

It may seem hard to give thanks this Thanksgiving Day of 2011. This marks the fourth consecutive Thanksgiving of widespread economic distress — and very nearly the fifth, since the National Bureau of Economic Research dates the beginning of the recession to December 2007.

Amid so much suffering, so much anxiety, and so little hope, how can anyone be expected to feel gratitude?

Let's turn to the very first federal Thanksgiving proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 28, 1863.

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Eight of the 10 costliest battles of the Civil War had already been fought by that date. The week before that first Thanksgiving, Union troops won a crucial victory at Chatanooga. Even so, the ghastly fratricidal bloodletting showed no sign of an impending end.

When Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a popular magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, wrote to Lincoln on Sept. 28, 1863, urging the setting aside of a day for national thanks, there seemed no good reason for the president to pay her any heed. Indeed, Lincoln's four predecessors had all ignored Hale when she had suggested the idea to them.

Amid so much suffering, so much anxiety, and so little hope, how can anyone be expected to feel gratitude?

Hale's letter arrived at the White House days after the Union defeat at Chickamauga, the deadliest battle of the war relative to the number of troops engaged. The idea took Lincoln's fancy. He assigned the job of composing the proclamation to Secretary of State William Seward. And here is how Seward opened the proclamation in that year of death and grief:

"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."

Can you imagine? It almost seems obtuse to write of harvests and weather in the throes of war. Yet Seward was not unmindful of that war, not at all.

"In the midst of a civil war of unequaled 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."

Even in war, Seward could perceive the progress and growth of the nation.

"Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, 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 battlefield; 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."

Can we see equivalent indices of progress today? It's difficult, but maybe that says more about our contemporary dispositions than our contemporary circumstances. Modern media culture trains us to focus on what is flawed and failing, not what is growing and succeeding.

Yet at the same time as Seward could see hope among violence, he was also willing to admit national wrong in a way that would be excoriated today as "apologizing for America." Anticipating a theme from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, Seward dared to even suggest that the nation's losses should be considered punishments for its sins, including the sin uppermost in American minds in that year of the Emancipation Proclamation: the sin of slavery. You have to wonder what today's opposition researchers would do to a president who dared say — as Lincoln said in March 1865 — that the victorious side of the war shared the guilt of the defeated side, and that 600,000 lost American lives were God's just verdict on a slaveholding society. Seward was more cautious, yet in that first Thanksgiving proclamation, he still wrote (in the presidential first person):

"I recommend to [the American people] that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to [God] 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."

Tough love. Sturdy courage. In this time of lesser but still real suffering, this first proclamation is a document from which to take solace and inspiration.

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