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Why did President Abraham Lincoln declare Thanksgiving to be a national holiday?


President Lincoln with the Thanksgiving Proclamation: National Archives


… the reason is not the one we think of today


When did Thanksgiving actually begin? Well, if we follow the mythology, it goes back to the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England.

That is a great story, but without the intercession of the 16th president of the United States, it would never have become the national holiday that is celebrated today.

And while many people south of the Mason-Dixon Line celebrate the holiday, I wonder how many of them actually know why Abraham Lincoln actually proclaimed the first Thanksgiving in 1863.

The history

The truth is that President Lincoln made clear that the nation should be grateful because of the Union victory at Gettysburg,


On October 3, 1863, expressing gratitude for a pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln announces that the nation will celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, 1863.


The speech, which was actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, declared that the fourth Thursday of every November thereafter would be considered an official U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving. This announcement harkened back to when George Washington was in his first term as the first president in 1789 and the young American nation had only a few years earlier emerged from the American Revolution.


At that time, George Washington called for an official celebratory “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” While Congress overwhelmingly agreed to Washington’s suggestion, the holiday did not yet become an annual event.


“President Lincoln proclaims official Thanksgiving holiday,”

History.com, October 1, 2020


Jefferson disagreed, Washington did nothing

While George Washington agreed that the country should give thanks, he did not do anything to further the celebration. Then, when Thomas Jefferson became president, he expressed misgivings about it because he felt that the country should not be favoring any religions,


Thomas Jefferson, the third president, felt that public demonstrations of piety to a higher power, like that celebrated at Thanksgiving, were inappropriate in a nation based in part on the separation of church and state.


Subsequent presidents agreed with him. In fact, no official Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by any president between 1815 and the day Lincoln took the opportunity to thank the Union Army and God for a shift in the country’s fortunes on this day in 1863.


“President Lincoln proclaims official Thanksgiving holiday,”

History.com, October 1, 2020


FDR changed the date once, but only fora short time

When Lincoln said that the fourth Thursday should be the date for Thanksgiving, everyone agreed.

Until the Great Depression, when businesses needed as much help as they could get,

The fourth Thursday of November remained the annual day of Thanksgiving from 1863 until 1939. Then, at the tail-end of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoping to boost the economy by providing shoppers and merchants a few extra days to conduct business between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, moved Thanksgiving to November’s third Thursday.

In 1941, however, Roosevelt bowed to Congress’ insistence that the fourth Thursday of November be re-set permanently, without alteration, as the official Thanksgiving holiday.


President Lincoln proclaims official Thanksgiving holiday,”

History.com, October 1, 2020


The Proclamation

Here is a copy of the proclamation that Lincoln issued in 1863, though written by William Seward, Secretary of State,


Proclamation 106—Thanksgiving Day, 1863 October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America

A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward 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 can not 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 unequaled 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 theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.


Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.


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. I do therefore 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 and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.


And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of 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.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.


Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.


ABRAHAM LINCOLN.


By the President: WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.


Source: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-106-thanksgiving-day-1863

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