Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Us This Thanksgiving

In October 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was still retreating south from the Gettysburg Campaign that summer and moving slowly toward the Rappahannock River. The Union’s George Meade followed closely behind but gave up the chase and was in the process of moving back north when A.P. Hill decided to attack the retreating Union forces at the Battle of Bristoe Station, Virginia. Hill was soundly defeated. Lee was furious with Hill’s reckless military decision-making.

It was at this grave turning point in the American Civil War that President Lincoln issued this proclamation on October 3, 1863:

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.

We know that by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for the presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.

Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It has seemed to me fit and proper that God 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 as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Lincoln speaks of a national reformation as a whole people. Not a transformation but a reformation—a correction. This is a gentle nudge toward Moral Law in the midst of a fierce and ugly internecine war that revealed the same attributes of human nature we see today—weakness of character, weakness of will, weakness of vision.

Image: Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Library of Congress.

Just before Lincoln issued this Proclamation, the Union Army of the Cumberland had secured the vital transportation hub of Chattanooga, Tennessee, but was confronted with a determined Confederate general Braxton Bragg at the Battle of Chickamauga. It turned out to be the second bloodiest battle of the war to date and a Union defeat.

Lincoln could not have seen the future Union victories to come. And yet, without anger, without sarcasm, without vitriol, Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. He reminds us to be dutiful; he reminds us to be grateful; he reminds us that when we forget the fundamentals of decency, we lose ourselves, our souls, and our national purpose. He reminds us to respect our cherished civic institutions. He reminds us that this is not the “Friendsgiving” that Biden just celebrated at Fort Bragg,  a newly created holiday centering around friends.  This is a holiday to thank God, not man.  No nation, Lincoln is telling us, can have a Brotherhood of Man without the Fatherhood of God.  We are to love God first, then our neighbors as ourselves.  Thanksgiving is the only universal national reminder of this underpinning of our society.

This is not the time in America today to bypass Thanksgiving. This is not the time in America today to rush thoughtlessly to the mall on Black Friday. This is the time in America to be thankful for the gathering of our families and for the many blessings of this life, including the blessings of Life and Liberty that God gives us and our country protects.

Perhaps to be remembered: our mother’s special recipe for stuffing; a fresh apple in the cranberry sauce; real whipped cream; the smell in the kitchen; walking an excited dog in the cold November air; prayer before dinner; the men and women who have “died to make us free”; the Truth that marches on.

Lincoln also told us, way before the Civil War began, to appreciate the Founders:

They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and laws: and that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name [George Washington] to the last; that during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place.

This from a man who never went to a formal school. We thank you, God, for him and for those like him who live among us now. Happy Thanksgiving!

Note: Silvio Canto, Jr., has also commented on what Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation means in 2021. You can read it here.

M. E. Boyd’s Apples of Gold – Voices From the Past that Speak to Us Now is available at www.mazon.com using the title and subtitle.

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