Wednesday, November 21, 2012

1863: The Year of Two Thanksgivings

Even if your knowledge of the history of Thanksgiving is a little shaky, you probably know that it became a national holiday when Abraham Lincoln declared it one in 1863. In the words of the original proclamation, issued in October 1863 and actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, the former senator from and governor of New York:
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 next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and 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 Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
However, this was actually Lincoln's second Thanksgiving proclamation of the year. On July 16, he had issued the following proclamation (again, likely by Seward):
It has pleased Almighty God to hearken to the supplications and prayers of an afflicted people, and to vouchase to the army and the navy of the United States, on the land and on the sea, so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently preserved; but these victories have been accorded not without sacrifice of life, limb and liberty, incurred by brave, patriotic and loyal citizens. Domestic affliction in every part of the country follows in the train of these fearful bereavements. It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father, and the power of His hand equally in these triumphs and these sorrows.
Now, therefore, be it known that I do set apart Thursday, the sixth day of August next, to be observed as a day for National Thanksgiving, praise and prayer, and I invite the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship, and in the form approved by their own conscience, render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the Nation's behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit, to subdue the anger which has produced, and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion; to change the hearts of the insurgents; to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a National emergency, and to visit with tender care, and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land, all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles and sieges, have been brought to suffer in mind, body or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will, back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace.
(FYI: That second paragraph is one sentence.)

The first Thanksgiving of 1863, August 6, was celebrated with proper solemnity. As the New York Times noted the next day, "The National Thanksgiving was observed throughout the City yesterday by an almost entire abstaining from secular pursuits. The stores throughout were closed, and there appeared to be a very general desire to unite in the purposes of the day -- Thanksgiving and Praise. Very many of the churches were open, where proper observances were had, and each was crowded to overflowing." What they were praising and/or hoping for was continued Union success; with the Union victory at Gettysburg in July, many hoped that tide of the war had finally turned in favor of the North.

Of course, on the minds of New Yorkers would have been the fighting closer to home -- the Civil War draft riots -- which had waged on the streets less than a month earlier. However, it is unclear if the riots played any role in the Thanksgiving commemorations.

Having celebrated Thanksgiving in August, why did Lincoln then proclaim another one in November? The declaration for this second Thanksgiving seems little different from the first; there had been no major Union victories in the meantime for which the nation could express thanks; and Lincoln's proclamation doesn't make any ties to harvest festivals, the Pilgrims, or any of the things we now firmly associate with the holiday. Had Lincoln not issued a second Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, do you think we'd be celebrating the national holiday in August? Any thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Michelle & James Nevius

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