I’ll bet it wasn’t a coincidence that Abraham Lincoln issued his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, the same day that George Washington had made such a proclamation 74 years earlier.
There was another similarity, too. Though Lincoln moved T-Day to the last Thursday of November, in 1863 that was the 26th, the same date that Washington had specified.
Old Abe seemed caught in the middle, looking backward and forward as he pondered what America had to be grateful for. The nation had come such a long way, and yet it had so many troubles in the fall of 1863.
He had come a long way, too, since his April 1862 Thanksgiving proclamation, and could delve deeper now when attempting to say something hopeful to the American people.
They needed hope – though there had been important victories, it was now clear that the war wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Meade couldn’t pin down General Lee in Virginia. The Confederacy had won at Chickamauga and US troops and civilian, besieged in Chattanooga, were starving. By November 26, there would also be great hunger and deprivation in Knoxville.
President Lincoln did come up with many things that the nation could be grateful for, and he made sure that the last word in his proclamation was “Union.”
Ever one to look toward the future, he also set a new day for Thanksgiving that would remain the same even as the calendar changed. And that’s still the paradox of our national psyche today – everything must remain the same even as it turns into something new and different.
The world has changed so much and we are so different from those two presidents. Today, though, it’s fitting and proper for us to celebrate the stable and predictable here in the land that Washington, Lincoln and many others built for us.
Here’s a video by Fredrick Laverdiere of the Thanksgiving proclamations by both Washington and Lincoln (1863). No modern president would use such religious terms today, and yet I think modern Americans are still good with the need for humility in the midst of bounty.
Now let’s jump to 2009 for a fun look at the meaning of Thanksgiving today.