SCOTT DREYER: Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation Declaring Thanksgiving a National

Many of us associate Thanksgiving with turkey and football, but why do we celebrate it in November? And why is it always on a Thursday?

In fact, some presidents as early as George Washington had declared days of Thanksgiving and prayer, but they were “one off” events, not designed to be celebrated annually.

In the early decades of our nation’s history, many states did have annual Thanksgiving celebrations, but each state had its own date. In other words, there was no single date for the whole country to mark the holiday.

Ironically, it was 1863–yes, right in the middle of the Civil War–that President Lincoln called for a nation-wide Day of Thanksgiving. Interestingly, Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, had been writing presidents for years pleading with them to establish such a holiday. Most presidents just ignored her letters. However, her petition caught Lincoln’s attention and he used the authority of his office to declare the last Thursday as a national Thanksgiving holiday, and the rest is history.

A few key points to note:

  • In the middle of a horrific Civil War, Lincoln called on the American people to be thankful.
  • Lincoln pointed out that the blessings to be thankful for are not the work of “mortal hand,” but instead are “the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”
  • The entire tone of the proclamation–an official, legally-binding document of the US Executive Branch–is deeply religious. This is interesting to ponder as we hear the phrase “separation of church and state” so often.
  • There is not a single mention of “pride,” but Lincoln does call for “humble penitence for our national perverseness.” Can you imagine any president of either party using that kind of language today? Can you imagine the media and entertainment “meltdown” if one did?
  • William Seward was Lincoln’s Secretary of State. In that position, he was responsible for managing US affairs with foreign countries. Two years after the end of the Civil War, in 1867, Seward oversaw one of the most brilliant chapters in US history, when he arranged our country to buy huge Alaska from cash-strapped Russia.


Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards 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…

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