Giving Thanks for a Nation
By Nancy Spannaus
November 26, 2020—Contrary to popular culture, Thanksgiving Day in the United States was never just about family. From the time of the Pilgrims, to George Washington, to Abraham Lincoln, it was about humbly expressing our gratitude for surviving as a nation (or a community), and committing ourselves to use our abundant gifts to create a better future for our fellow man. In the words of my late friend and historian Graham Lowry, we were “giving thanks for a nation.”
Today we would do well to do the same – and prepare ourselves for the hard work of creating a polity that lives up to the ideals which these forefathers, and others, fought to put into effect in our unique nation.
A Quick Review
The Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in 1621 was a celebration of survival, occurring after approximately one year of devastating death and disease which had brought their population down by half. First-hand accounts report that it was attended by 50 settlers and 90 members of the Patuxent and Wampanoag tribes, to whose assistance the Pilgrims had every reason to be extremely grateful.
Days of thanksgiving were periodically declared in New England, and other colonies as well, over the ensuing 160 years. The Continental Congress declared a national day of thanksgiving after the Americans’ victory in the Battle of Saratoga; it was celebrated on Dec. 18, 1777, and similar declarations followed throughout the war.
But the first major celebration declared by the United States as a nation was by General George Washington on April 19, 1783. That was the day that the General ordered an end to all hostilities with the British, and called for services to “render thanks to almighty God.” The occasion was Congress’s April 15 ratification of the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War.
As President, Washington issued two official proclamations of days of thanksgiving. The first was on October 3, 1789, when he called for Americans to set aside Nov. 26 to thank almighty God for
His kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation; … for the peaceful and rational manner in which we have been able to establish constitutions of government for our own safety and happiness, and particularly for the national One now lately instituted.
That “One,” of course, was our Constitution, which still survives today.
Washington’s second Thanksgiving proclamation is much less well-known. It occurred on January 1, 1795 and called for a day of prayer and Thanksgiving on February 19, in celebration of the resolution of the Whiskey Rebellion. To understand the motivation for this declaration, it is only necessary to recall that the world had just been witness to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, run by the Jacobins, in which tens of thousands had been guillotined or left to rot in prison. Jacobin clubs had been popping up throughout the United States as well, and Washington saw the violent resistance to the lawful whiskey tax in Western Pennsylvania as part of that movement. As talks failed, he mobilized troops to suppress the rebellion, but the revolt was resolved without confrontation between the Federal forces and the rebels. (The two instigators convicted of treason were pardoned by Washington.)
Then we have the United States’ poet-president, Abraham Lincoln, who called for a national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War. On Oct. 3, 1863 Lincoln issued his proclamation for such a celebration to be held on the last Thursday of November. It was under President Grant in 1870 that Congress established Thanksgiving as a yearly holiday.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation
Lincoln’s proclamation, taken before victory for the Union was assured, looked forward to the unification of the nation once again, in the midst of the generous blessings which the United States enjoyed. I quote it in full:
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, 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 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
Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.
 “Giving Thanks for a Nation” is the title of the first chapter of Lowry’s 1988 book How the Nation Was Won, America’s Untold Story, Volume 1, 1630-1754.