Heather Cox Richardson
Anyone who cares about the history of Thanksgiving generally knows that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags shared a feast in fall 1621, and that early American leaders periodically declared days of thanksgiving when settlers were supposed to give their thanks for continued life and—with luck—prosperity.
The story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday is fuzzier. I’ve always heard that Lincoln proclaimed a national holiday in 1863, but just how and why was never clear.
The answer is that Lincoln appears essentially to have been pushed into declaring a national holiday in 1863. With that pressure behind him, he recognized that he could use a holiday for an important political statement. Consummate politician that he was, he did so. But he did not stop there. Lincoln pivoted his political statement to express a larger vision of what America should stand for.
Here is how it happened:
An astonishing seventeen state governors declared state thanksgiving holidays in November and December of 1862. The war was going badly for the Union, but the armies still held. Leaders recognized the need to acknowledge the suffering, and yet to keep Americans loyal to the cause. New York governor Edwin Morgan’s widely reprinted proclamation about the holiday reflected that the previous year “is numbered among the dark periods of history, and its sorrowful records are graven on many hearthstones.” But this was nonetheless a time for giving thanks, because “the precious blood shed in the cause of our country will hallow and strengthen our love and our reverence for it and its institutions. . . . Our Government and institutions placed in jeopardy have brought us to a more just appreciation of their value.” (NYT, 11/27/1862, p. 8)
President Lincoln wanted Union supporters to give thanks for the recent successes. He was also aware of faltering enthusiasm for the devastating war and the wavering loyalty of Democrats who were eager to make peace with the Confederates. A national day of thanksgiving for military success and for the protection of the Union would wed religion, thanksgiving, and the Union war effort. So the President declared a national day of thanksgiving.
But the nation’s first national Thanksgiving was not in November. The date President Lincoln set was Thursday, August sixth.
On that day, ministers across the country pointed out that the celebration was most apt, as they listed the signal victories of the U.S. Army and Navy in the past year. It was now clear that it was only a matter of time until the Union won the war, they told their congregations. Their predictions reinforced the war effort, of course, just as Lincoln had almost certainly intended.
While the roots of the national holiday we celebrate lie in the war years, though, the holiday we celebrate does not center on giving thanks for American military victories.
In October 1863, President Lincoln declared the second national day of Thanksgiving. It is this one that we celebrate, and its purpose was much broader than that of the first.
In the past year, Lincoln declared, the nation had been blessed:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to invite and provoke the aggressions of foreign States, 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. The needful diversion of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence have not arrested the plow, the shuttle or the ship. The ax 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 consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect a continuance of years with large increase of freedom.*
It is this one, the celebration of peace, order, and prosperity, that became the defining national holiday.