Americans have been taught to identify Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and Native Americans joining, despite their differences, for a shared feast at Plymouth Colony. The symbolic nature of this historical gathering is powerful and should never become lost on us as a nation. However, in this divided political climate, just weeks removed from a heated midterm election, the country would also be remiss to forget the reason Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the first place: to awaken a sense of America’s shared history and principles during the most tense and divided of times.
While George Washington originally called for an official “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” his vision did not become a reality until President Abraham Lincoln saw it through almost 75 years later in hopes of calming and uniting the nation during the Civil War.
In 1863, two years into the terrible war, the country’s fate hung in the balance. Would it continue to be, as Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address, a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal?” While the bloody Battle of Gettysburg may have been one of the military turning points of the Civil War, it did not mark a turning point in the hearts and minds of much of the American citizenry, which continued fighting with weapons and words.
Lincoln recognized this and sought to change it. That is why, just weeks before his Gettysburg Address, he announced by proclamation that the nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of November, 1863.
In powerful and uplifting words, the 16th president proclaimed that 1863 had been “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies…notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor,” could “expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”
Lincoln fervently desired that both sides remember they were still Americans who should be united by the principles of 1776 and the memory of the previous generation’s struggle for independence. And Lincoln knew they should be grateful for such an inheritance.
But they also had work to do. As Lincoln advised his fellow citizens, they should turn to God in “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.”
Throughout the awful war, Lincoln continued to believe that Americans should unite in gratitude for our founding principles and always strive to live up to those principles. And so, at the end of the war, he pledged not only “a new birth of freedom” but also a new peace with “malice toward none; charity for all.”
We need to follow Lincoln’s advice today. If Americans during the Civil War could take time to step back and give thanks for what bound them together then, why can’t we do it now?
It’s still possible today if we remember what one of Abraham Lincoln’s heroes, Thomas Jefferson, said about our political differences. After the bitter election of 1800, Jefferson declared that when it comes to political parties, Americans may go by “different names,” but above all, we are “brethren of the same principle.” The truths Americans believe, expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, make us “one people,” according to Jefferson, and those truths are stronger than any differences we may have.
Lincoln and Jefferson’s words still carry hope for us today. Americans can be “brethren,” even after this election season, if we continue to understand and love our country’s history and founding principles. They are what make us “one people.” But we cannot forget them or turn our backs on them. If we do, we risk becoming as deeply divided as we were when Lincoln spoke.
So, in the midst of this Thanksgiving season, let’s remember the shared history and principles that bind us together. If we could do it in 1863 in the heat of a violent Civil War, we can give it a try as we gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving this year.
Dr. Jeffrey Sikkenga is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center, an independent academic center that seeks to educate Americans on the history and principles of their country through the study of primary-source documents.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.