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Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Elias Boudinot, a member of Congress in the new Federal Government, introduced a resolution in 1789, to form a joint committee that asked President George Washington to call for a day of prayer and thanksgiving. That joint resolution passed both Senate and House. Washington chose to respond.

On October 3, 1789, he called for a day of “Public Thanksgiving and Prayer,” that he set for Thursday, November 26, 1789. Washington celebrated that early Thanksgiving, by attending services at St. Paul’s Chapel, and giving beer and food to those in jail for failing to pay their bills.

Washington set another day of Thanksgiving late in his administration, in 1795, after armed forces defeated the Whiskey Rebellion.

Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800, but he refused to proclaim a day of prayer and Thanksgiving, based on that “wall of separation between Church and State,” spelled out in the First Amendment. He also believed it the duty of the states to determine special days of observance.

Yet, when governor of Virginia, Jefferson had declared a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer. The idea of a national day of Thanksgiving died though with Thomas Jefferson, and remained almost dead until the Civil War split the country apart, over slavery.

The one exception was James Madison who called for a single day of Thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor at Godey’s Lady’s Book, a women’s magazine, had lobbied governors, Congressmen, judges, and presidents for four decades, pleading for a national day of Thanksgiving.

She asked the same thing of everyone, that “the last Thursday in November be set aside to ‘offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year.’”

Lincoln was the first person with any authority to respond to Sarah Josepha Hale’s letter dated September 28, 1863, but then Lincoln faced a rebellion and a war and needed some good news, something positive to redirect the nation’s attention.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the rebellious states. On July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Union forces had stopped the Confederates’ attack on Cemetery Ridge, south of the town, dooming Lee’s march into the North.

On July 4, 1863, the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, led by Lt. General John C. Pemberton, surrendered to Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, Mississippi, after a 47-day siege, dividing the Confederacy into two parts. The Union now controlled the Mississippi River.

Partly as a result of the welcome news on both fronts, President Lincoln read Sarah Joseph Hale’s letter, and chose to act.

On October 3, 1863, the same day as Washington’s proclamation, Lincoln issued his proclamation, “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.”

William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, drafted the proclamation, and Lincoln signed it. “A year later federal officials chose to sell that document of the proclamation, in order to benefit Union troops,” an archivist’s worst outcome.

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln boarded a train in Washington D.C. that carried him to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he spoke for a few minutes at the dedication ceremony for the new national cemetery, a fitting burial site for those Union soldiers who had perished over three hot days in July.

Lincoln finished his address, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

A week later, on November 26, 1863, when back in the White House, Abraham Lincoln, with Mary Todd, and their sons, celebrated that day of Thanksgiving and prayer, as did countless other Americans across the country. What a monumental year 1863 had become! Thanksgiving began to bind the nation.

William August Muhlenberg, an Episcopal clergyman in New York City, read the President’s proclamation for a day of Thanksgiving, and on that day, he jotted down the lyrics for what he called a President’s Hymn, that he entitled “Give Thanks All Ye People.”

“Give thanks, all ye people; give thanks to the Lord. Alleluias of freedom, with joyful accord. Let the east and the west, north and south roll along; Sea, mountain and prairie, one thanksgiving song.”

May all of you, my dear readers, enjoy this Thanksgiving, as it binds our families and our nation together once again, over a noon meal on a Thursday, the last week in November, the way that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln wanted it.

Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.