An American Holiday Forged in War
Editor’s Note: This is our annual Thanksgiving article, originally published in 2013.
Happy Thanksgiving from War on the Rocks! Today is all about tradition: turkey and stuffing; family, friends, and football. From early childhood, we all learn the origin story of Thanksgiving that is so mythically central to its celebration. Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony marked a successful harvest with a feast to which they invited Native Americans who had lent much-needed assistance after the previous hard winter. Records of earlier harvest celebrations and debates (google “thanksgiving origins” if you’re interested and have hours to kill) about the actual provenance of what would become our Thanksgiving aside, it is no surprise that the centuries-long history would make it the holiday most steeped in uniform tradition across America.
But how did thanksgiving become Thanksgiving? The first recognition of a single, nationally celebrated holiday of Thanksgiving came in a proclamation by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, a year after it signed the Declaration of Independence. It came as our young country’s future was far from certain, and was indeed issued from a temporary meeting site because the national capital of Philadelphia itself was then occupied by British forces. The language was marked by its central theme of gratitude for American forces’ successes, thanking God,
particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success.
The document also issued prayers for further good fortune on the battlefield:
To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace.
Similar proclamations followed intermittently for a few years, but disappeared for a period until James Madison brought back the tradition in 1814 to issue thanks for America’s fortunes in yet another “time of public calamity and war,” this time the War of 1812 (so serious that the immediate prior proclamation called for citizens to defend against the British invasion of Washington). Like the Continental Congress’s proclamation of four decades prior, Madison’s also gave thanks for
the distinguished favors conferred on the American people … in the victories which have so powerfully contributed to the defense and protection of our country,
and asked for
wisdom to [the nation’s] measures and success to its arms in maintaining its rights and in overcoming all hostile designs and attempts against it.
But Thanksgiving Day did not become an annually observed national celebration until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued his own proclamation. Like its predecessors, this too was written in the contemporary context of a conflict that threatened the very viability of the United States as a sovereign, unified nation, “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.”
So today, while we enjoy our Thanksgiving traditions, we should take note of the ways in which the wars that we have fought have shaped our nation not only politically, but culturally and as a society, as well. We do not celebrate thanksgiving, but Thanksgiving. We celebrate it annually, as a nation, a unifying tradition that would not exist in such a form were it not for our collectively shared experiences of the conflicts that define our history. As such, there is perhaps no better day on which to reflect on the enormously important impact of our nation’s wars — past, present, and future.
The full text of Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation is included below.
By the President of the United States of America
The year that is drawing toward 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 can not 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 unequaled 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater 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 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 heretofore. 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. 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, and 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.
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 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute.
Image: Library of Congress