Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving
November 26, 2020
By Suzanne Lance
Former Associate Director, NYS Writers Institute
On October 3, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Thanksgiving, which designated the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and Praise.
The Proclamation, which historians say was actually written by Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, was filled with direct and indirect references to the institution of slavery, and the war that had been raging for two and a half years. While the Proclamation recognized the “unequalled magnitude and severity” of the war and all those whose lives had been forever altered by the “… lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged…” it also noted some positive conditions for which to be thankful.
Among those mentioned were that “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…” and “peaceful industry” continues to function. The Proclamation also emphasized the “ever watchful providence of Almighty God … the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
The words and general sentiments of the time that were expressed in the Proclamation seem eerily relevant today as we as a nation struggle with the COVID pandemic, a deep political divide, and the continuing hurdle of systemic racism. It sometimes feels like we are in the midst of another civil war, with issues similar to those that the country grappled with 157 years ago!
Today, as we and millions of other Americans do our best to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends on Zoom instead of in person, we must still pause to reflect on our individual bounties and “gracious gifts of the Most High God” and “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledge [them] as with one heart and one voice.”
As we list those things for which we are thankful individually, let us join in the final sentiment of Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving “… and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
Suzanne Lance served as the Writers Institute associate director from 1989 until 2018. She is currently working on a project to create a digital archive from the thousands of hours of individual recordings documenting Writers Institute visits from more than 2,000 writers. Her efforts were featured in a Times Union story, Digging deep to digitize: Writers Institute works to make immense archive publicly accessible.
On December 5, 1863, Harper’s Weekly published a two-page engraving by renowned artist Thomas Nast to commemorate the first national Thanksgiving.