A Malat Musing: Thanksgiving Perspective

Created: 11/21/2012 9:39 AM KSTP.com By: Phil Malat

No national holiday in America lacks proper perspective more than Thanksgiving.

What we would learn from an exit poll conducted after the turkey was consumed, is that most Americans believe they have the day free of work to watch NFL football games or because the pilgrims celebrated a successful harvest with the American Indians at Plymouth, Massachusetts  in 1621; despite the fact that such an occurrence is very poorly documented and may be far more legend than fact. 

The other common response would surely be that Thanksgiving was enacted as day of rest in preparation for black Friday and to provide proper additional sustenance for a grueling weekend of holiday shopping.

Thanksgiving roots are, in fact, embedded in harvest celebrations that were once common worldwide dating back to the seventeenth century. That however has little to do with the timing of the American holiday in that harvests are completed well in advance of the fourth Thursday in November.

For years Thanksgiving in America was observed on various dates that fluctuated from state to state.  The now traditional date in November was established on October 3, 1863 by Abraham Lincoln in a Presidential Proclamation.

While President Lincoln deserves some credit for establishing the customary date, the majority of the credit belongs to Sarah Josepha Hale.  Hale was the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a popular women’s magazine in 19th century America. 

In a letter dated September 28, 1863, Hale urged the president to establish and fix a unified national date for Thanksgiving. She accurately argued that there was a groundswell of support nationwide for her recommendation. She pointed out that it would be a simple process to enact such a day because it only required the president’s consent. 

In her letter, Hale stated she had been pursuing a national Thanksgiving holiday for 15 years through both her magazine and letters to previous presidents. Unlike Lincoln’s predecessors, he responded immediately to Hales request.  

What proved to be a primary impetus to Lincoln was his dismay over a perceived lack of appreciation for the All Mighty within the American people. This belief compelled him to encourage a far more expansive vision of the national celebration to exceed that of a successful harvest.

Lincoln insisted our gratitude extend to all the blessings bestowed upon our nation – blessings of wealth, power and national defense, natural resources, and most especially for the extraordinary freedom and liberty that few in the world would ever know or enjoy.

This dismay was first directly expressed in a portion of Lincoln’s National Fast Day Proclamation on March 30, 1863. 

“And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People?  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 other 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!”  

Then, just six months later, Lincoln reiterated these concerns in a portion of his Thanksgiving proclamation. 

“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense 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 theretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, 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.”

Maybe this Thanksgiving it would behoove us to give an additional moment of thought to President Lincoln’s guidance. A guidance and wisdom that demands Americans honor a solemn obligation to convene the utmost level of gratitude, which Lincoln believed was only commensurate for all our immense blessings. 

Phil Malat is a columnist for KSTP.com.