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, which is mythically central to its celebration. The Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony celebrated a successful harvest with a feast to which they invited Native Americans, who were in dire need of aid after the previous harsh winter. Leaving aside the records of earlier harvest ceremonies and discussions (Google “origins of thanksgiving” if you’re interested and have hours to kill) about the true origins of what would become our Thanksgiving, it’s no surprise that centuries of history have made this holiday the best it’s ever been. The holiday based on the most unified tradition in America.
But thanks, how was Thanksgiving? The first recognition of a unified, national Thanksgiving holiday was proclaimed by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It came at a time when the future of our young country was somewhat remote, and indeed a temporary rendezvous was given, for the national capital of Philadelphia was then occupied by the British forces. This language is gratitude for the success of the American forces, thanks to God,
Especially as he was pleased to develop, with so great a measure, the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with the most signal success.
The document also offered prayers for future success on the battlefield:
To inspire all our commanders, both on land and sea, and under them, with such Wisdom and Power as may, by the will of God Almighty, adapt them to the Instruments, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, Independence. and Peace.
Similar declarations followed intermittently for several years, but disappeared until James Madison brought back the tradition of giving thanks for America’s wealth in 1814, this time in the (very serious) War of 1812, another “time of public calamity and warfare.” in the immediately preceding announcement, he urged citizens to defend against a British attack on Washington). As the Continental Congress declared four decades earlier, Madison’s gave thanks.
High favors bestowed upon the American people … in victories which have contributed so mightily to the defense and defense of our country,
wisdom [the nation’s] measures and success in his arms in preserving his rights and repelling all hostile designs and attempts against him.
But Thanksgiving didn’t become an annual national holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln made his proclamation. Like its predecessors, it is written in the contemporary context of a conflict that threatens the viability of the United States as a sovereign, unified nation “in the midst of a civil war of unequal scale and violence.”
So today, as we enjoy our Thanksgiving traditions, we should celebrate how the wars we fought shaped our nation not only politically, but also culturally and socially. We celebrate Thanksgiving, not Thanksgiving. We celebrate it every year as a nation, a unifying tradition that would not exist in its form without our shared experiences of the conflicts that define our history. So perhaps there is no better day to reflect on the profoundly significant impact of our nation’s wars—past, present, and future.
Below is the full text of Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation.
By the President of the United States of America
The year that is drawing to a close has been filled with fertile fields and the blessings of a healthy sky. To these blessings, which we are constantly enjoying, and from which source we tend to forget, are added others of a nature so extraordinary that they do not allow them to penetrate and soften even the unaccustomed heart. Almighty God’s ever-mindful providence.
Peace was maintained with all nations, order was maintained, and laws were respected and obeyed in the conditions of a civil war of unparalleled scale and violence, which sometimes seemed to invite foreign states and provoke their aggression. Harmony prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict, which was largely contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
The necessary diversion of wealth and power from peaceful industries to national defense did not imprison plow, shuttle, or ship; the ax extended the limits of our settlements, and the mines, as well as iron and coal, as well as the precious metals, yielded more than ever before. In spite of the waste in camp, siege, and battle-field, the population steadily increased, and the country, rejoicing in a growing consciousness of power and might, was permitted to await the continuation of the years with a great increase of liberty.
No human counsel has thought of these great things, and no human hand has accomplished them. They are the gracious gifts of God Almighty, who remembers mercy when he deals with us in wrath for our sins.
It 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. Therefore, I invite my fellow citizens everywhere in the United States, as well as those at sea and immigrants in foreign lands, to celebrate the last Thursday of next November as a day of thanksgiving and praise. to our merciful Father in heaven. And I advise them to offer praises worthy of God for such individual deliverances and blessings, humbly repent for our national depravity and disobedience, and glorify His mercy for all the widows and orphans. who mourn or suffer in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and we fervently implore the intervention of the hand of Almighty God to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as it suits the divine purposes. to fully enjoy peace, harmony, tranquility and unity.
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done in the city of Washington, this 3rd day of October, 1863, and the eighty-eighth Independence Day of the United States of America.
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern Warfare Institute.
Photo credit: Matthew Brady