What do feminism, war, political divisiveness, humanism versus Christian nationalism, Jefferson versus Lincoln, Mary had a little lamb, and the Finger Lakes have in common? Thanksgiving.
On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln did something George Washington called for in his first term: institute a “national day of thanksgiving and praise.” (Congress told Washington it was a great idea but didn’t do anything about it). The third President, Thomas Jefferson, resisted any national demonstrations of piety because the constitution enshrined a separation of Church and State. So even though thirty states had adopted some form of holiday for giving thanks, it fell to Lincoln.
But wait, it didn’t just happen. Sarah Josepha Hale spent thirty years lobbying for a national holiday. She was the author of “Mary had a little lamb” and had become the editor of the largest circulation woman’s journal in the country. Both she and her magazine were devoted to what we would call progressive women’s issues. She agitated for three decades.
Even way back in our young nation’s culture, giving thanks was connected to war. The Continental Congress declared days of thanksgiving and prayer following each important battlefield win – God having something to do with killing redcoats. Subsequently, every military victory was worthy of thanksgiving. In the Civil War, both Presidents Lincoln and Davis declared days of thanksgiving and prayer when their respective sides won murderous and bloody battles. God was awash in competing thanking and praise for Manassas and Shilo.
Finally, Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November a national holiday, specific referring to Gettysburg and the changing tide of the war. The Finger Lakes connection is William H. Seward, of Auburn. He wrote Lincoln’s Thanksgiving declaration. That speech offers plenty for us to reflect on tomorrow.
“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, 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 theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.”
Sadly, we cannot say the same about our present cold civil war, in which laws are not obeyed and foreign interests have been aggressive.
“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things (fruits of the earth, successful commerce, and national growth). 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 was therefore recommended, by Lincoln via Seward, that the people of the nation offer “up the ascriptions justly due to (God) for such singular deliverances and blessings” And “also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience” ask God “to heal the wounds of the nation, and restore it.”
In addition to thanksgiving, Lincoln invited our “praise,” and also “penitence for our national perverseness.” We would do well to add all of this back into our Thanksgiving menu this year, and every year.