“A day of public thanks-giving”

Why wait until Christmas for gifts? Today, a small gift to readers of my blog. Of all the presidential declarations of Thanksgiving—and well before the hype of televised parades, presidential turkey pardons, and Black Friday creep—two proclamations stand out as particularly poignant.

George Washington, 1789

In early October 1789, George Washington declared 26 November, the fourth Thursday of that month, “a day of public thanks-giving and prayer”—the first declaration of Thanksgiving by a president of the United States. Even in a nascent republic that had just endured a grueling revolution followed by years of turmoil over how it should govern itself, President Washington found much to be grateful for:

That we may then all unite in rendering unto [God] our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interposition of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

Abraham Lincoln, 1863

At the height of the Civil War—the Battle of Gettysburg had occurred just three months earlier—Abraham Lincoln, like his predecessors, declared the last Thursday of November “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Even “[i]n the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” President Lincoln recounted a number of blessings that “should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people”:

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

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