In early September of 1863 a 74-year-old editor of a women’s magazine wrote to President Abraham Lincoln to renew her crusade to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Differing states had made separate dates for giving thanks but not all and not all on the same date.
William Seward, Secretary of State and close associate of Lincoln, liked the idea and brought it to the president for his approval. He too liked the idea and set Seward to the task of writing a declaration that Lincoln could sign. He did so and on Oct. 3, 1863 the declaration was formally signed and delivered.
Seward’s prose was not as soaring as Lincoln’s could be, but it spelled out the purpose and necessity for a nation to give, as a body, “Thanksgiving and Praise.”
The war was still raging, of course, though the tide had turned toward the North. Thus, Seward began the proclamation by stating that “the year that is drawing to a close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
“In the midst of civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” Seward wanted to assure the nation that things were stable: peace with other nations was secured, order has been maintained, laws respected and harmony had prevailed everywhere except in “the theatre of military conflict.”
Life, in effect, the declaration noted, went on unencumbered. Agriculture and industry thrived, shipping continued and the population was growing. All of which were “gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath, nevertheless remembered mercy.”
With this introduction, Seward went on to “Admonish all Americans to set apart the last Thursday in November for a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
The document then asked they do so, “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, and commend to His tender care … widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers from war.”
The ending pleaded that Americans “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 Devine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”
It does not take much musing to translate this message to the present. Though not at the level of civil war, our nation is wrenched by civil and political conflict that makes routine life and politics difficult. There is no North and South, but there is Right and Left. There is no military conflict, but there is division escalated by uncivil behavior and rancor.
Thus, it is that our time can more than use the admonitions of the declaration that calls for “thanks for deliverance and blessings … with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”
So, we join Seward and Lincoln in imploring “the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation” and restore our union … consistent with the Divine purpose to the fulfillment of peace and harmony, tranquility and Union.”
We are a most blessed nation. It is a shame to hinder our progress by wallowing in divisive rhetoric and stubborn one-sidedness. Political differences, yes. Conflicting solutions to problems, necessary. But civility is necessary for peaceful solutions.
So, give thanks and praise today, for the world is envious of our union, imperfect as it may be, and we must preserve it and its values. For God remembers our sins but nevertheless remembers mercy.
Richard Fulton is an emeritus professor of political science.