Lincoln Proclaims Thanksgiving: “Penitence for our national perverseness”

by Bob Schwartz

“Thanksgiving-Day,” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, December 5, 1863.

“Thanksgiving-Day,” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, December 5, 1863.

The modern Thanksgiving holiday begins with Abraham Lincoln issuing a Thanksgiving Day proclamation on October 3, 1863, at the height of the Civil War.

At that point, America was a country of two cultures; in fact, of two nations at war. Even history was the subject of dispute. The North traced our national origin to the Puritans of New England, thus Thanksgiving was their American holiday. The South believed America began with the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia.

In his proclamation, Lincoln calls for healing and for “peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.” In terms of union, however, it isn’t clear who Lincoln refers to when he asks for “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” Exactly who has been perverse and disobedient?

One thing is clear. Even with all his divine pleas, Lincoln calls this conflict of principles and cultures inevitable—“the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Lincoln held a famously and understandably dark view of his American times, shaded by realities and by his own depressive personality. We can and should take a brighter view this Thanksgiving, having come so far from the America of 1863, and having much to be thankful for. But just as we repeat his call for “peace, harmony, tranquillity” we are remiss to ignore the realities of 2016. Like Lincoln, we should be big, open and wise enough to see things as they are, and to change them as needed, always being painfully aware of the cost.

From his proclamation:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. 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 Prayer 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, tranquillity, and union.

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