Columnist Don Robinson: Essential to spirit of Thanksgiving

Published: 11/22/2017 6:31:22 PM

It is worth remembering how Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

President Lincoln proclaimed it in October 1863, about four months after the bloody, deeply sobering battle at Gettysburg. The nation was just beginning to understand the gravity of the struggle that lay ahead. Before it was over, it claimed over 350,000 lives and left a legacy of bitterness between Blue and Gray that endures to this day.

The idea of establishing an official, national day of thanksgiving originated with Sarah Josepha Hale, an important poet and novelist and perhaps the most influential editor of the mid-19th century. Her influence might be compared to David Remnick, Gloria Steinem, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Rachel Maddow and Chris “Hardball” Matthews all rolled into one.

Much about Ms. Hale is embarrassing by today’s standards. She was no suffragette. She believed a woman’s place was in the home, where her influence could be wielded indirectly, through her husband and children.

But it was Ms. Hale who, after a 17-year courtship of presidential support, finally got Lincoln and his cabinet moving on Thanksgiving. At the time, the only national holidays celebrated in the United States were Washington’s birthday and Independence Day.

In style, Lincoln’s proclamation sounded more like William Seward, the secretary of state who is usually credited with having written it. But it made some important points. It declared that, despite sufferings of “unequaled magnitude and severity,” American population during the war had increased, and the nation felt new strength and vigor, along with a “large increase of freedom.” In addition, peace has been preserved with all nations, despite their temptations to meddle. (As secretary of state, Seward was especially aware of this blessing.)

To whom do we owe thanks for these blessings? The proclamation was ready with the answer to that one. “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.” The proclamation ended with a prayer that God would restore to us, “as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Coming in the midst of the terrible Civil War, these words must have seemed almost glib. Those who wrote and issued this proclamation still had a lot to learn about suffering, responsibility and gratitude for God’s providence.

In his second Inaugural Address, delivered about 18 months later in March 1865, Lincoln summed up in five lean, diamond-hard paragraphs what he, at least, had learned from the war.

He began his address by noting with almost brutal candor that the war was practically over. And what had caused all this terrible suffering? Some historians have presented complicated accounts, but Lincoln did not mince words. “One-eighth of the whole population (of the nation) were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”

Who started the war? Again, Lincoln was candid. One side, he said, sought to save the union without war, seeking only to confine slavery to the southern states, restricting its territorial expansion. The other side — the “insurgents ” — sought to destroy the nation by seceding without war. “One side would make war rather than let the nation survive; the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

He proceeded directly to the heart of the matter: moral judgment and the consequences. Each side, Lincoln said, looked for an easier triumph, and a result “less fundamental and astounding.”

“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ (Matthew 18:7) If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ” (Psalm 19:9)

Lincoln concludes with his famous summons to the work of reconciliation. Without malice, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, we must finish the work: bind up the wounds, care for the casualties, and “work for a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln lived long enough to learn that Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Five days later, Lincoln was assassinated. The work that he outlined would have to be done by others.

It is still unfinished. Indeed, it has hardly begun. Nor will it ever be done until we repent of our sins. People from both the North and the South must humbly ask forgiveness for our own sins, as well as demand, and pay for, justice for the aggrieved.

Repentance leading to reconciliation is an essential part of the spirit of Thanksgiving. It will enrich our celebration if we are able to incorporate it into our experience of this grand national feast.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, writes a regular column published the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be reached at

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