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Thanksgiving should be a personal and national starting point

Write to the Point


Last updated 11/27/2019 at 12:20pm

I found a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving on a website called “Abraham Lincoln Online.”

I knew Lincoln had issued the proclamation, but I never read it, nor knew of its background. According to the website, Lincoln had issued such proclamations before, but never something on a national level.

On Sept. 28, 1863, he received a letter from the 74-year-old editor of Godey’s “Lady’s Book,” Sarah Josepha Hale, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” Hale explained that “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

Lincoln, assisted by Secretary of State William Seward, responded to Hale’s petition by establishing what today we observe as Thanksgiving. It’s an interesting read, given the times — not just theirs but also ours.

The year 1863 was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, and was about to get even more devastating for the nation, yet Lincoln and his government were asking people to look beyond the turmoil, the pain and heartache, the trials of the soul and see all of the good that had taken place that year despite the conflict. Food was being grown, goods produced and shipped and despite the war, peaceful relations with foreign nations had been preserved.

In keeping with the traditions of that earlier age, Lincoln called upon the citizens of the United States to recognize the good things they had received as gifts from the “Most High God.” It’s a practice that is decidedly out of fashion in the modern era, and for many reasons, including actions by Christian denominations in direct contradiction to the doctrine preached to everyone else.

That may be a harsh statement, but truth can be a harsh mistress. And the pointing finger of accusation often slaps down the helping hand of humility and love.

Lincoln in his proclamation recognized the nation had sinned and disobeyed the commands of the Almighty, but asks citizens to still give thanks even in knowing this. Lincoln believed God’s gifts came from mercy, in spite of anger.

It’s not something we usually associate with Thanksgiving because it requires being humble, and that’s not a characteristic our culture prizes. Some of us talk a good game about humility, but in the end, we all succumb to pride — pride in righteousness in our beliefs, pride in our abilities to make a living, pride in what we possess.

Pride in being great.

Lincoln’s proclamation reminds me that our times are not all that different from his. Our trials and tribulations might be less violent, but are just as divisive.

I feel Lincoln hoped that a nation that stopped to give thanks and acknowledge what had gone right in a world of so much wrong might be able to carry those feelings and realizations forward through the rest of the year. That by doing so, the country would find a reserve of strength it would need to fall back upon as the war got worse.

He also felt it important for the nation to remember the source of those gifts. Too often we forget that others are involved in our happiness just as much as in our pain, and that what we do have is a blessing — whether you believe it’s from a higher power or not.

I feel Lincoln would want the same to happen today for us under our circumstances, that Thanksgiving isn’t a once-a-year time to reflect and be grateful for what we have, but a starting point. A place to begin practicing the better qualities of our human nature like humility, tolerance, personal gratefulness and yes, even a bit of love.

Doing so might lead others to proclaim that the United States and its people truly are great.

John McCallum can be reached at


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