Thanksgiving Day never comes at a bad time. Gratitude brings consolation, humility and peace. It builds community and strengthens ties. The holiday has less of the commercial frenzy of Christmas. No naughty and nice lists or awkward gift exchanges. None of the discomfort some feel around religious holidays.
It’s the perfect fall pause for reflection and appreciation.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, often cited as beginning the annual national holiday. Previous presidents had issued similar proclamations and many states had their own Thanksgiving holidays.
But Lincoln’s declaration formalized the observance. Notably, it came just weeks before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. The battle had turned the tide of war, but conflict continued. The Union victory would not come for more than 16 months.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving declaration that year, written by Secretary of State William Seward, stated that despite the awful war the Union continued to prosper and grow, at peace with other nations and prevailing in battle.
He closed the brief statement by asking Americans to “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.”
Weeks later, at Gettysburg, Lincoln delivered his brief, indelible remarks, acknowledging the sacrifice of the fallen and calling on “us the living … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
Giving thanks brings with it a corresponding obligation to care for what we have received, to carry on the work of those who have gone before, to build on the foundation, not just preserve it. People of faith believe that we cannot do this alone. We welcome the assistance and guidance of the Almighty Hand, as well as the help of those who do not share our faith. But we dare not be passive bystanders.
President John F. Kennedy, assassinated 50 years ago, closed his 1961 Inaugural Address saying, “let us go forth to lead the land we love asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
This month’s anniversaries recall bad times America has come through: Civil War, the Kennedy assassination, the tumultuous Sixties, and civil rights struggles. Events flow from events. War, recession, domestic discord. Often it appears the center will not hold. But it does and America prospers.
Pundits talk often about the contentious, bitter politics of the time. There’s a certain ahistorical narcissism in all this, as if our current conflicts and disagreements are like no other. While each generation inherits and shapes its social, political, and economic realities, the virtues and struggles of a great people have led us to this place.
In 1777, economist and philosopher Adam Smith wrote, “There’s a lot of ruin in a nation.” We’ve often seemed bent on turning that observation into a testable hypothesis. The enduring lesson of American life, though, has been that we emerge stronger as we’re tested.
This is not to trivialize today’s challenges. Nor is it to suggest that our differences will be easily bridged. Some principles cannot be compromised. Some circles can’t be squared. Health care reform, “living wage” laws, income disparities and more will dominate domestic politics in the months ahead.
An expanding government touches us in unanticipated ways, politicizing things that used to be personal and private. I think it’s grown too big, too intrusive, becoming a wedge that divides us. Others tell me they disagree. Regardless, neither politics nor government has grown so large as to crowd out our passion for freedom or our defense of individual liberty.
Most Americans treat Thanksgiving Day as a day for faith and family and food and football. The national holiday also invites us to reflect on the gifts we have received and to acknowledge the sacrifices that secured them for us.
Things aren’t perfect here. There’s too much privation and too much abundance. But as Lincoln’s example reminds us, thanksgiving doesn’t require perfection. It simply requires the grace to appreciate our blessings in an imperfect world.
Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org