Thanksgiving arrives just when we need it — our most unifying holiday at one of the most divisive moments in recent American history. In general, the holiday is celebrated the same way around the country, which is among its best qualities. There are no blue-state versions and red-state versions. We all experience roughly the same routine as we go in and out of the annual food coma, punctuated by sidelong glimpses at football games and floating Snoopys on TV. We all sit at tables with distant relatives and stragglers, breaking bread together.
That national sameness was very much a goal of the holiday’s architects, who created it at an even more divisive moment. With the Civil War raging in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward, issued a proclamation Oct. 3 calling for a national holiday to be observed on “the last Thursday of November.” That proclamation, a document of unusual literary grace, might do good service again in a nation that could use words of healing.
The proclamation is not generally listed among Lincoln’s great achievements, and with good reason. Much of it was written by Seward. It may be surprising, on the face of it, to think that Lincoln needed a speechwriter. Most historians consider him the most talented wordsmith of all the presidents. But he and Seward had forged a close partnership, including acts of writing — the brilliant peroration about our “better angels” at the end of Lincoln’s first inaugural address stemmed from a thought Seward had first expressed. Their partnership was all the more impressive because these two career politicians had run hard against each other for the Republican nomination in 1860. That kind of cooperation between rivals, for a greater cause, is hard to find in 2019.
Seward had a reason for proposing a national holiday. As he and Lincoln knew well, Thanksgiving was celebrated erratically around the country, with the dates set state by state, by governors. Seward had proclaimed four Thanksgivings of his own as governor of New York. But there was no uniform practice.
Seward’s son, Frederick, told the story through his father’s memoirs, which he edited. One morning early in October, Seward went to Lincoln’s room and found him working through a stack of papers. Seward joked that if the South was always going to accuse the federal government of “stealing away the rights of the states,” Washington ought to at least steal something valuable.
Lincoln looked up, “with a quizzical expression,” and asked, “Well, governor, what do you want to steal now?” Seward answered: “The right to name Thanksgiving Day! We ought to have one national holiday, all over the country, instead of letting the governors of states name half a dozen different days.”
Lincoln entered “heartily” into the idea, adding that it was only a custom, and not a law, so a president had “as good a right to thank God as a governor.”
Seward had already written an outline of a proclamation, which “they read over together, and perfected.” The word “perfected” suggests that Lincoln added a few phrases. It is difficult to know who wrote which line, but together they forged a document of elegance.
It is not all sweetness and light. Atypically for a government document, the proclamation expresses a sense of penitence, acknowledging “national perverseness and disobedience,” even “sins.” Then it concludes with a dose of generosity to the disadvantaged, particularly “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers.” And in perhaps the most important line, it celebrates one country, not two: “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.”
It might be enough to end the story here and say simply that Seward and Lincoln had crafted a memorable statement of purpose, in the middle of a brutal war. But Lincoln still had great speeches left to give, and they show a debt to the Thanksgiving proclamation of 1863.
In a recent study, historian Martin P. Johnson found an anecdote from a Canadian official, who remembered that Lincoln asked to be excused, along with Seward, so that “we can get to work” on the speech. One line of the Gettysburg Address, “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this,” echoes the “fit and proper” line from the Thanksgiving proclamation.
A year and a half later, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, which many scholars consider his finest effort. He addressed penitence and forgiveness, and the particular duty to help the same “widows and orphans” he and Seward had mentioned in the Thanksgiving message. At the end of the earlier document, he asked that all Americans come together to “heal the wounds of the nation.” As he concluded his second inaugural, he asked his fellow citizens to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”
The Civil War is never that distant; in troubling ways, it has resurfaced in recent months as an implied threat of a conflict that may reignite someday. How reassuring it is, in this context, to read the words of forgiveness that Lincoln and Seward wrote so carefully. Even in the worst months of the fighting, with violence all around them, they saw a better day coming, when Americans would return to the same table, in the “full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”