By Nancy Spannaus

Nov. 22, 2023—One hundred and sixty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln called upon Americans to observe a national day of thanksgiving, in which they would not only celebrate the blessings of the Almighty, but work 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.”

Thanksgiving in a Time of War
Abraham Lincoln in 1865, photographed by Gardner.

In so doing, Lincoln was looking beyond the war which still raged throughout the nation. Indeed, he was taking what he believed to be a step toward bringing the warring parties together again.

Today, our national mandate to celebrate Thanksgiving faces the same contradiction.  While nominally at peace, our country is in fact engaged in at least two deadly wars abroad, and wracked by fierce, apparently intractable conflict at home.  The scale of death and suffering is truly horrifying, and the way out seems unclear.

What this situation brings to my mind is the precedent of the Peace of Westphalia. That agreement, memorialized to two treaties (the Treaty of Munster and the Treaty of Osnabruck) and signed among the warring parties in 1648, marked the end of the Thirty Years War. That war, waged between principalities and nations under the banner of religion (Protestant versus Catholic), was exceedingly bloody, and thought to claim the lives of as much as 20% of the European population. Atrocity followed atrocity, as each side sought to revenge outrages committed by the others.

The treaties which brought an end to the mayhem contained three vital principles, which I believe are still relevant today. The first is the recognition of national sovereignty, expressed in the following language: “States are responsible for their own territory and citizens and … other states shouldn’t interfere with either.” This is known as the principle of national sovereignty.

Thanksgiving in a Time of War
A painting of the ratification of the Treaty of Munster.

The second and third are included in the first two articles of the Treaty of Munster. The first article calls on the parties to not only keep the peace, but have it  “observed and cultivated with such a Sincerity and Zeal, that each party shall endeavor to procure the Benefit, Honor and Advantage of the other.” The second called for “a perpetual Oblivion, Amnesty, or Pardon of all that has been committed since the beginning of these troubles.”  In other words, the cycle of revenge should cease, and a peace in which all parties to the conflict benefit should be established.

I do not know whether President Lincoln was conscious of this history as he attempted to find the basis for a peaceful end to the Civil War. He was, of course, an avid student of legal history, among other areas, and it is possible. I do know that Robert E. Lee was familiar with the Thirty Years War, and was determined to avoid that seemingly endless cycle of revenge when he decided to surrender to Grant, rather than continue the conflict.[1]

So, let us keep these Westphalian principles in mind as we hear once again Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, as I discussed it in a post two years ago.

“Let Us Humbly Give Thanks”

Nov. 24, 2021—As the Civil War yet raged in the fall of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decided to call for a national “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be held on the last Thursday of November.[2] His full address read as follows:

The Proclamation

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 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, tranquility, 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

Some Reflections

Various aspects of Lincoln’s address are quite striking.

First, he was at pains to address his call to the entire nation, not just the Union forces. There was no name-calling or vituperation. His fervent hope was to begin the process of healing the wounds of the nation, and bring about “the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and Union.”

Second is Lincoln’s description of the blessings the nation was receiving even in the midst of Civil War – the harvest, the growth of population, and much more. He is surprisingly optimistic for a President laden with the burden of winning a war.

Painting of Lee’s surrender, housed at the National Portrait Gallery.

The third aspect, and perhaps the most surprising, is Lincoln’s decision to ascribe those blessings entirely to the mercy and graciousness of God. Lincoln, a devotee of the American System, was very conscious of the role that human inventiveness and America’s republican tradition had played in ensuring the productivity of the agriculture and industry which were so bountiful. Yet he insisted upon humility before the Divine. After all, despite those accomplishments, the “national perverseness and disobedience” of Americans had brought the nation into a devastating war. Humbly seeking the guidance of a higher power seemed more than warranted.

And today?

Although we are not in the throes of an all-out civil conflict today, our situation in some respects looks more grim than that of 1863.

Our deaths from COVID have now substantially outnumbered the deaths in the Civil War. Pessimism is rampant. Witness our raging opioid epidemic, with unprecedented rates of death; shocking rates of suicide among our youth; our mass homelessness; our closed factories; and our governments caught up in so many ideological squabbles that they are unable and unwilling to invest in the desperately needed improvements in the public welfare.

A funeral for a teen who committed suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among U.S. teens today.

Yet, we too are blessed with bounties: the abundance of our agriculture, the fantastic progress of our medical research, and the inspiring legacy of our republic, which, despite its terrible flaws, has given us a foundation for digging ourselves out of the current crisis, should we only learn its lessons. (See my book.) These blessings are our inheritance, but as a nation, we have to a dangerous degree turned our backs on the noble ideas which led to our progress as a nation. Yet we ignore that fact, expressing instead an overweening lack of humility and insufferable self-righteousness before God, our fellow citizens, and the world.

In that respect, Lincoln’s 1863 Declaration serves as both a remonstrance and a hope to our tormented time.  Let us humbly give thanks, and then do the work that needs to be done to restore our Republic to its noblest aims.

Nancy  Spannaus is the author of the just release book Defeating Slavery: Hamilton’s American System Showed the Way. More information on the book can be found at https://americansystemnow.com/defeating-slavery/.  The book can be purchased at Amazon.com.

[1] This fact is documented in the book 1865 by Jay Winik.

[2] Congress passed the law making Thanksgiving a yearly celebration in 1870.

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