The first is its timing: Oct. 3, 1863. The nation already had endured two years of appalling carnage on the battlefields of the Civil War. And although Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg seemed to mark a turning point in favor of the Union, there was no clear light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, much more blood would be shed in the months ahead.
Yet President Lincoln paused at this time of unimaginable crisis not only to urge Americans to give thanks, but to note how blessed our nation is. “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” the first sentence reads. He lists those blessings in terms so strong and soaring one could almost forget this was one of our nation’s darkest hours.
Nearly 150 years later, this is a perspective check. If Lincoln could encourage his fellow Americans to give thanks at such a bleak time, how can any of us complain about our lot? How can we read about polls that suggest our best days are behind us, that all we can do is manage our “inevitable” decline? What nonsense.
That’s not to say we don’t have difficulties. We do - serious ones. And no, the answer isn’t to crack a phony smile and pretend everything’s great. We need to do what past generations have done: look our problems squarely in the eye, roll up our sleeves and get the job done. We make mistakes, and we learn from them. But give up? No. Such a defeatist attitude is unworthy of a free people.
The second aspect of Lincoln’s proclamation that is sometimes forgotten is the reason given for the holiday. To give thanks, yes, but not just in general - to give thanks to God. “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” Lincoln wrote. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Whoa - hold on there. Somebody get the American Civil Liberties Union. How politically uncorrect can a president get? Wasn’t Lincoln worried that he might offend some of his listeners?
Hardly. He was following in the hallowed footsteps of George Washington. Notice the date of Lincoln’s proclamation: Oct. 3. On that same day in 1789, the nation’s first president gave his Thanksgiving proclamation. And like Lincoln, he was clear about who deserved our gratitude.
Washington called on all Americans that day to observe a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. “Of the many influences that shaped the American concept of liberty, the first and most formative was faith,” writes author and Washington scholar Matthew Spalding. The Founding Fathers knew the First Amendment didn’t forbid public mention of God. It simply meant there could be no official state church.
They also knew that whatever church an American belonged to, he ought to give thanks to Almighty God. Not because we’re living in some heaven on earth - that’s impossible - but because despite our problems, we’re incredibly blessed. We live in a land that recognizes our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In a world beset with death, tyranny, disease and famine, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
We need to act like we believe that. And the best way to start is to say thanks.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times