Other Views: Lincoln was the ideal president to proclaim the first Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving means inclusion. President Abraham Lincoln made that point profoundly during our Civil War. On Oct. 3, 1863, the White House issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation, which declared the last Thursday of November to be a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” He also humbly requested “the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore … peace, harmony, and Union.”
Earlier, Lincoln had ordered government offices closed on Nov. 28, 1861, for a day of thanksgiving. Up until the 1863 proclamation, individual states had celebrated days of giving thanks. Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book, had written to Lincoln in late September of that year pressing for a national day of thanks, a goal she pursued for many years without success.
According to Lincoln’s administrative aide John Nicolay, Secretary of State William H. Seward signed the document. Lincoln and Seward by then were friends as well as colleagues.
Unity was an overarching Lincoln theme throughout the Civil War, employed with shrewd calculation and brilliant political timing. By the fall of 1863, the strategic position of the Union had taken a marked turn for the better. In July, there were two significant victories—the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the capture of Vicksburg Mississippi. A sizable Confederate army never again would invade the North, and the great Mississippi River was now completely in Union control.
During the preceding year, one military development provided Lincoln with political opportunity. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac, under General George B. McClellan, defeated General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam Creek in Maryland. The victory was technical, in that Lee withdrew and left the Union forces in control. Nevertheless, the outcome qualified as a Union military success, desperately welcome.
Lincoln faced extremely serious challenges beyond the Confederacy. General McClellan was popular with rank-and-file soldiers; he also held national political ambitions. He was committed to the Union but strongly opposed abolition of slavery. A talented organizer and administrator, he refused to be aggressive in attacking Lee’s army.
McClellan became insubordinate, demanding control over all war policy. The president fired him. McClellan became the Democratic Party’s 1864 presidential nomination; Lincoln defeated him again.
President Lincoln, after confirming control of the Army, moved quickly to exploit the Antietam victory by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The executive order of Jan. 1, 1863, freed slaves in the Confederate states. From the fall of 1862, the U.S. government issued a series of warnings under the Second Confiscation Act, passed by Congress on July 17, 1862. The legislation confirmed in law Lincoln’s War Powers.
Critics have argued Lincoln should have included states in the Union, but that would have been illegal and unwise. Slavery was still legal under the Constitution and ended in law only when a sufficient number of states ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on Dec. 18, 1865. Slavery had support in border states and parts of the North.
By design, the Emancipation Proclamation is a detailed dry document that makes the case for removing property, with emphasis on procedure. There is no reference to fundamental moral concerns expressed elsewhere, especially in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural.
Immediately, the Civil War transformed from focus on preservation of the Union alone to abolition of slavery. Lincoln used practical means for transcendent goals. Give thanks.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha.