This year’s Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation has not yet been released to the public (I am writing on Tuesday, two days prior to Thanksgiving Day). Back in 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the first of now 160 consecutive proclamations calling for the last (now fourth) Thursday in November to be a day of national thanksgiving. Lincoln’s was published in early October to give the citizens of the nation time to prepare for the day.
They say Secretary of State William Seward wrote the first draft of the 1863 Proclamation. Lincoln may have added to it, or perhaps Seward knew his boss’ mind well. It is very Lincolnesque.
In the proclamation, Lincoln (Seward) acknowledges the reality of a civil war of “unequalled magnitude and severity.” 1863 was the year of Gettysburg and Chickamauga.
The proclamation also reminded the people “the year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”
And then this presidential document adds, “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.”
We might be so wise as we remember 2022 with its ugly divisions, its sorrows, and its tragedies.
But we have lost the ability for such wisdom. The onus is not on the President or the junior aide tasked with writing this year’s proclamation. Last year’s proclamation suggested that we give thanks for blessings rendered by God, nation, and each other. God then drops out of the picture as we are called to offer gratitude to farmworkers, educators, parents, health care professionals, scientists and researchers, and members of the military. “Each other” trumps God. (By the way, can we reclaim the “t” word for its original use? I can’t find a good synomym.)
It’s not on the president or his aides. Most recent Thanksgiving Day Proclamations have been equally anemic no matter who the president. It is that we really can’t thank God because we have no idea of God. God has not only slipped from the national vocabulary except as an expletive, but also from the national imagination. We cannot imagine a God of bounty let alone a God who, “while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
It is our loss.
New York Times columnist Pamela Paul wrote about Thanksgiving earlier this week. She mostly does not know what to do with it, but she ends her piece on what she considers her best note. “But even for us secular humanists, Thanksgiving offers a moment to appreciate whatever good this year wrought, even if by accident or chance.”
As a culture, as a country, thanks for accident or chance may be the best we can do.
But what if, somehow, we could find our way to the “ever watchful providence of Almighty God”? Maybe then we could “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.”
I will read the newest Thanksgiving Day Proclamation when the White House releases it. In the meantime, I stick with the 1863 version.
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 unequalled 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 consciousness 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,
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 United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln