Can gratitude change the course of history? Think of Thanksgiving, a celebration of gratitude for the bounty of harvest and the survival of the first English colonists in America. Did you know that the feast of Thanksgiving was established nearly 250 years after the survival of the first American colonies? Why was a feast of gratitude necessary a full two centuries after the event it commemorated? Thanksgiving, our national holiday of gratitude, was created by Abraham Lincoln at the close of the Civil War, the worst period of violence, negativity and aggression in American History. Even as Lincoln, the commander in chief of the armed forces, sought victory, he knew that his victory had no glory, and that the war had been a titanic waste of resources and human life. The only way forward was through gratitude. In his proclamation of the national holiday, Lincoln truthfully addresses the brutality of the war while shifting his focus to the great bounty and blessings of the American people. It was Lincoln’s gift that he could celebrate gratitude while confronting the cataclysm of war, and he passed on this gift to all Americans when he created the Thanksgiving holiday. Although we think of cooperation between the pilgrims and native Americans during Thanksgiving, the true story is the restoration of hope through gratitude.
After he created Thanksgiving, Lincoln had just a little more than a year to live before his assassination at Ford’s Theatre by a confederate partisan. He must have been afraid of violent reprisal at the end of the Civil War. He could have structured his life around this fear, shutting himself indoors, pursuing repressive, punitive policies to stamp out confederate insurrection. Maybe by living through fear he could have avoided the fate that awaited him at Ford’s Theatre in 1865. But what kind of life would that have been? One of paranoia and despair. Lincoln lived selflessly and fearlessly through gratitude. He had a greater vision. He believed that America could be healed from its schism and violence, by giving thanks for the good around them: through gratitude. While Americans slaughtered one another in the civil war, Lincoln could see the blessings and bounty all around him. War didn’t make these blessings worthless, they made them all the more significant. To heal America, Lincoln had to help her citizens become more grateful, and create an opportunity for Thanks Giving that transcended the brutal conflict.
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the 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 battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness 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. 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 Praise 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.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State