It would be wonderful if Thanksgiving 2014 could take place in a year of broadly enjoyed prosperity at home and tranquility abroad, but that is not to be. All the more important, then, to recall that when Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, the country faced far graver circumstances.
In early spring of that year, the war that had split the United States seemed destined for a disastrous outcome. Union defeats throughout 1862, culminating with the horrific loss at Fredericksburg, demonstrated the nation’s precarious position. President Lincoln struggled to address the military and political challenges confronting the country.
Yet Lincoln was also concerned with the soul of his nation. He gave voice to the convictions that lead to the creation of Thanksgiving in two proclamations. The first was on March 30, and in it he sought to share with his countrymen his sense of personal humility, calling for a national day of “Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer”:
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God.
“We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.
“Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
That summer proved to be the turning point in the Civil War, with Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Though the rebellion appeared to be receding, Lincoln was under no illusions. Enormous risks and challenges lay ahead. The war’s end was nowhere in sight, but once it had ended, as Lincoln would later observe in the Gettysburg Address, the “great task,” the “unfinished work” would need to start with reuniting a nation.
Amid the signs of promise in 1863, it was time to thank the God whom Lincoln credited for both personal and national success. In October, the president issued an invitation asking all Americans to join him in expressing gratitude for their deliverance. He also asked that amid their celebration, people request God’s grace for the families who had borne the worst of the brutal war.
In his proclamation establishing the Thanksgiving national holiday, President Lincoln said:
“The year that is drawing toward 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 the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. . . .
“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.”
On Thanksgiving, President Lincoln’s thoughts are worth recalling in a nation grown more prosperous and powerful than the 16th president could have ever envisioned. They are particularly relevant when so many of its sons, daughters and their families still bear the burden of protecting democracy, and when on the home front so many are anxious about the direction of the country and the economy.
Amid happy and grateful Thanksgiving celebrations, we would do well to reflect also that the United States remains, as it was in Lincoln’s time, a nation with a boundless capacity for renewal.
Mr. McLean is a partner in Arsenal Capital Partners, a private-equity firm in New York.