On October 3, 1863 — six weeks before he delivered the Gettysburg Address in which, with parsimonious eloquence, he elaborated the moral imperative of fighting, and winning, the Civil War — Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation that established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
In a way, it was odd: In the middle of a war that took the lives of 2 percent of the U.S. population — the equivalent figure would be over six million dead today — President Lincoln saw fit to call upon his fellow citizens to give thanks. We think of the expression of gratitude as a virtue that accompanies good fortune, so why did Lincoln embrace gratitude at the moment when the future of the American experiment was most imperiled, when so many were suffering?
Perhaps it is because he saw that it is precisely in the most difficult times that gratitude is most empowering.
Lincoln made the proclamation a personal invitation and request: “I…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,” he wrote. He urged his compatriots to pay tribute to God, to ask him to care for those who had lost loved ones and endured suffering because of the war, and to ask “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.”
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This year, as the Republic faces internal strains and challenges to our democratic ideals, and to the institutions that protect them, the likes of which have perhaps not been seen since that cataclysm precipitated by our original sin, we should reflect on Lincoln’s example and wisdom.
Lincoln saw that taking the time to reflect on the blessings and beauty in our lives was a way of deepening our sense of our place in the world, and our understanding of what really matters. Whether one believes in divine power or not, stepping out of our own world and reflecting on the pains and joys of the wider world, the wonder of life and the universe, lends us perspective. Gratitude is a doorway to the kind of humility that allows us to live purposeful, good lives. Today, as Americans struggle to figure out how we will confront the 21st century with unity, honesty and an enduring allegiance to the principles of liberty and equality on which our country was founded, gratitude can help us focus on what really matters.
Lincoln‘s proclamation was signed by the President, and by William Seward, his Secretary of State, who is believed to have written it. (Perhaps this explains the special inclusion of those Americans beyond our shores in Lincoln’s invitation.) It is striking that the Secretary of State would take up drafting such a document—domestic holidays wouldn’t have necessarily been in his portfolio. But, whether by coincidence or design, this historical footnote, like the Proclamation’s content, can continue to inspire.
For the last four Thanksgivings, my husband and I hosted Thanksgiving dinners at our home in Vienna, where I was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. We invited a group of ambassadors and their spouses. The dinner was not formal: We made invitations with handprint turkeys on them. There was a buffet with Brussels sprouts, turkey and cranberry sauce. I made my mom’s sweet potato soufflé. We decorated the tables with dried corncobs and candy corn. The assembled ambassadors, accustomed to formal diplomatic suppers, crammed around a big U of folding tables in our living room. And then we compelled everyone to participate in our Thanksgiving tradition: We went around the table one-by-one, and each of the 35 people present related something for which they were grateful that year.
I confess that this made my colleagues deeply uncomfortable at first. (“I was paralyzed with fear the first time,” the Italian ambassador’s wife told me last month, as she recalled how much she had come to love Thanksgiving.) But they were game. And it was always a magical evening for us. We watched the boundaries of culture and politics disappear. People spoke about their families, about loved ones lost, about friendships kindled and lessons learned. Some things made us laugh, some elicited tears. At the end of the evening we knew more about each other’s worlds. And we had a renewed appreciation for the world and humanity we share. The sharing of gratitude was, for us, a magnificent gift.
And I was so grateful to be able to share this piece of the country I love with all of them. And in their embrace of Thanksgiving, I was reminded once again that America — when we are at our best — stands for something bigger in the world. As we seek to address the divisions that wrack our country today, we should attempt to let the humility of gratitude inspire us to remember this: It is not all about us; we have the opportunity to set an example in the world as a political experiment that lives up to and advances universal values. We should aspire to continue to play that role.
During the Civil War, we were blessed to have perhaps our wisest and most humble president. Among the 29 men who have followed him, there is none so distant from the example of character that Lincoln set than the White House’s current occupant.
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This Thanksgiving, we cannot look to Washington for leadership; we must look to each other. And we can start by giving thanks for the principles on which our Republic was founded; for the people of all colors and faiths who are as American as each other; for the courage of those who, throughout our history, have sought to address our flaws and failures by appealing to our strengths and ideals and in doing so have built a more perfect union; and for the love and comfort we can bring to one another, no matter our differences, even in our darkest hours.
And so, this year, as we celebrate with family and friends, let us give thanks for Thanksgiving itself — this most American of holidays, and recommit ourselves to the values and virtues which it can inspire us to work to make real in the world.
Colorado native Daniel Baer is Diplomat in Residence at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies.
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