On October 3, 1789, George Washington signed the first Declaration of Thanksgiving from the newly established American Republic. He urged the American people to enjoy “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed, acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and iconic mercies of Almighty God.” It was a long and difficult road to independence, and America is still reeling from the failed Articles of Confederation and the struggle to get a new constitution. Washington saw this struggle with his own eyes and knew, perhaps more than anyone else, that America is nothing but a series of miracles. And he made sure that the people thanked him.
This was not the first Thanksgiving celebration in America; the Pilgrims’ celebration of 1621 with the Wampanoag in Plymouth receives this honour. Who was this even Washington’s first Thanksgiving; he declared Thanksgiving in December 1777 following the Continental Army’s victory over the British at Saratoga. However, it was the first Thanksgiving of the American Republic. It was the first national Thanksgiving.
In 1795, Washington proclaimed another holiday, and his successor, John Adams, followed suit in 1798 and 1799. Thanksgiving was almost forgotten on the national stage. The state of peace and abundance has made America not grateful, but complacent. The War of 1812, however, reminded Americans that their collective place in the world was more fragile than they thought. And at the end of the war in 1814, James Madison proclaimed “a day of public humiliation and fasting and prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare” of the United States. Madison declared another Thanksgiving in 1815.
And then almost half a century passed.
Once again, all was quiet, and once again the national Thanksgiving holidays faded into the background. The founding generation, America’s best generation, is gone, and with it the opportunity for national gratitude seems to be gone. However, just as the War of 1812 reminded the nation of its precariousness, the Civil War shattered the illusion of American harmony. Abraham Lincoln warned the nation in 1858 that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and by 1863 the divided nation was indeed in danger of falling.
The Americans turned to Lincoln, and Lincoln turned to God. Even in the midst of the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, Lincoln saw the blessings of America. “The year that is drawing to a close,” he said, “has been filled with the blessings of fertile fields and healthy skies. To these bounties, which we enjoy so constantly that we are apt to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, of such an extraordinary nature that they cannot but penetrate and soften even the heart, usually insensitive to the vigilant providence of Almighty God.
At the lowest level of America, the most devoted servant of the nation preferred to give thanks rather than mourn for his own and the collective party of America, and indeed there were reasons to be grateful. As Lincoln said, “Peace is maintained with all nations, order is maintained, laws are respected and observed, harmony reigns everywhere, except in the theater of war, while this theater has been greatly reduced due to the advancing military forces.” army and navy of the Union.
And that was the birth of Thanksgiving as we know it. At the worst of times, under conditions so dire that the continued existence of the Republic was doubtful, Lincoln taught us to look beyond ourselves… to be sincerely grateful for the blessings we have received. And so for 143 years.
As we celebrate Lincoln Day on the last Thursday in November, take a moment to reflect on the string of miracles that bring us together and hold us together. Take a cue from Washington and feel the magnitude of the achievements of the generation that built this country, often through sheer willpower. Take a cue from Lincoln and appreciate the blessings we truly enjoy instead of yearning for the things we don’t have. Take a cue from the best America has produced and say a prayer of thanksgiving.
Reprinted from Institute of Faith and Freedom