Around the table this day, we count our blessings and offer thanks. The day has come to have different meaning for Americans.
But for presidents, it always has been a time to reflect on the time in which they were selected to serve.
Before television and radio, as our country was growing, proclamations and speeches were regularly made to weave message and context together. Thanksgiving was a logical time for America’s leaders to do both.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave two Thanksgiving proclamations. The first one, issued in springtime and delivered on a Civil War battlefield, gave general thanks for blessings of the year, including a series of victories. The second 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation that fall, the first in the unbroken string of annual presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, is regarded as the true beginning of the national Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.
Proclamations of thanks had been made earlier, beginning with those made by the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. While the messages transcend time, the significance varies through history.
In 1789, George Washington proclaimed “that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions ... to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed best.”
Washington later proclaimed that as Americans, we need to show gratitude “to render this country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries; to extend among us true and useful knowledge ... and to impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.”
Ironically, in 1798, John Adams declared a day of fasting and humiliation instead of Thanksgiving because of potential foreign threats facing the nation.
Later in a more peaceful time, in 1815, James Madison said he was thankful not to be faced with harmful conflicts. It would be another 40 years before the string of proclamations were made regularly.
In 1862, Lincoln urged Americans to go to church and pray in order to “implore spiritual consolation in behalf of all who have been brought into affliction by the casualties and calamities of sedition and civil war, and that they reverently invoke the divine guidance for our national counsels, to the end that they may speedily result in the restoration of peace, harmony, and unity throughout our borders and hasten the establishment of fraternal relations among all the countries of the earth.”
Even Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, made proclamations. On the same day Lincoln issued the above, Davis proclaimed, “at one and the same time, have two great hostile armies been stricken down, and the wicked designs of their armies been set at naught. ... we should bow down in adoring thankfulness to that gracious God who has been our bulwark and defense, and to offer unto Him the tribute of thanksgiving and praise.”
After the war, Andrew Johnson sought to use the day for national recognition of our healing: “The civil war that so recently closed among us has not been anywhere reopened ... domestic tranquility has improved, sentiments of conciliation have largely prevailed, and affections of loyalty and patriotism have been widely renewed; our fields have yielded quite abundantly .... These great national blessings demand a national acknowledgment.”
Grant offered a similar sentiment in 1869: “(H)ealth has prevailed throughout the land; abundant crops reward the labors of the husbandman ... the nation has increased in wealth and in strength; peace has prevailed, and its blessings have advanced every interest of the people in every part of the Union ... civil and religious liberty are secured to every inhabitant of the land, whose soil is trod by none but freemen.”
In Reconstruction, Rutherford B. Hayes stated in 1878: “The resources thus furnished to our reviving industry and expanding commerce are hastening the day when discords and distresses through the length and breadth of the land will, under the continued favor of Providence, have given way to confidence and energy and assured prosperity.”
Near the close of the 19th century, William McKinley proclaimed: “The conditions of labor have been improved, ... and the comforts of our homes multiplied. His mighty hand has preserved peace and protected the nation. Respect for law and order has been strengthened, love of free institutions cherished, and all sections of our beloved country brought into closer bonds of fraternal regard and generous cooperation.”
In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt and the nation were mourning McKinley’s recent assassination: “This Thanksgiving finds the people still bowed with sorrow for the death of a great and good President. We mourn President McKinley because we so loved and honored him; and the manner of his death should awaken in the breasts of our people a keen anxiety for the country, and at the same time a resolute purpose not to be driven by any calamity from the path of a strong, orderly, popular liberty, which, as a nation, we have thus far safely trod.”
A year later, having found comfort in his role as president, Roosevelt issued a proclamation that was circulated and reprinted for decades: “It falls upon the President at this season to appoint a day of festival and thanksgiving to God. Over a century and a quarter has passed since this country took its place among the nations of the earth, and during that time we have had, on the whole, more to be thankful for than has fallen to the lot of any other people. Generation after generation has grown ... and passed away. Each has had to bear its peculiar burdens, each to face its special crisis, and each has known cares of grim trial, when the country was menaced by malice domestic or foreign levy, when the hand of the Lord was heavy upon it in drought or flood or pestilence, when in bodily distress and in anguish of soul it paid the penalty of folly and a froward heart. Nevertheless, decade by decade we have struggled onward and upward; we now abundantly enjoy material well-being, and under the favor of the Most High we are striving earnestly to achieve moral and spiritual uplifting. ... Rarely has any people enjoyed greater prosperity than we are now enjoying. For this we render heartfelt thanks to the giver of Good; and we will seek to praise Him, not by words only, but by deeds, by the way in which we do our duty to ourselves and to our fellow-men.”
On this day we give praise for the wisdom of the past to carry us to new heights in the future.
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