Happy Thanksgiving from Abraham Lincoln

On this Thanksgiving, it is, perhaps, appropriate to go back to Abraham Lincoln’s words from his Thankgiving Proclamation to give us all some perspective. For Lincoln, Thanksgiving was about acknowledging the mercies of God in the midst of the great civil war the country was embroiled in. And here, in 2016, we may not be physically at war with each other, but we are in the middle of a great ideological struggle which has severely divided our nation in two. While debates of philosophy and policy are important, they are not on Thanksgiving Day. May we all pause and reflect on Lincoln’s wise words.

 

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 fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe 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 battle-field; 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, tranquillity 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 Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

History: Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”

Booker T. Washington’s autobiography “Up from Slavery” is the classic look at post-slavery, post-Civil War America that is both instructive, surprising, and insightful for our modern society. Washington was a young boy when he received his freedom after the war, and he had the insatiable desire for learning. He would let nothing stop him, no matter the distance he had to travel, no matter the work he had to do, no matter the task that needed to be accomplished. He was a learner in every possible sense, setting aside any animosity that he might have had for the people and system which once oppressed his own people in the cruelest of ways. His story is one that still needs to be told. I require several chapters of it in my US History class, and I wish others would too. Here’s a quite remarkable excerpt from chapter 1, which expresses how slavery affected everyone, not just the slaves. In a day and age when labor and hard work seem to be devalued, this excerpt is very instructive.

“Ever since I have been old enough to think for myself, I have entertained the idea that, notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did. The hurtful influences of the institution were not by any means confined to the Negro. This was fully illustrated by the life upon our own plantation. The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape. The slave system on our place, in a large measure, took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people. My old master had many boys and girls, but not one, so far as I know, ever mastered a single trade or special line of productive industry. The girls were not taught to cook, sew, or to take care of the house. All of this was left to the slaves. The slaves, of course, had little personal interest in the life of the plantation, and their ignorance prevented them from learning how to do things in the most improved and thorough manner. As a result of the system, fences were out of repair, gates were hanging half off the hinges, doors creaked, window-panes were out, plastering had fallen but was not replaced, weeds grew in the yard. As a rule, there was food for whites and blacks, but inside the house, and on the dining room table, there was wanting that delicacy and refinement of touch and finish which can make a home the most convenient, comfortable, and attractive place in the world. Withal there was a waste of food and other materials which was sad. When freedom came, the slaves were almost as well fitted to begin life anew as the master, except in the matter of book-learning and ownership of property. The slave owner and his sons had mastered no special industry. They unconsciously had imbibed the feeling that manual labour was not the proper thing for them. On the other hand, the slaves, in many cases, had mastered some handicraft, and none were ashamed, and few unwilling, to labour.”

 

Know Your History: What the Emancipation Proclamation Really Did

It freed the slaves.

Not really.

What’s the deal? Let’s break it down a little so we can understand exactly why Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a master stroke of genius – even if it didn’t free one slave!

It was late summer in 1962 and the war between the Union and Confederacy was not going particularly well for the North. Lincoln was desperate for a victory and even more desperate to build some momentum which might help this terrible conflict to come to a close.

The idea of issuing an emancipation for the slaves was something he greatly wanted to do, but it couldn’t be seen as a desperate plea. He needed a victory to back it up.

The Battle of Antietam ultimately gave him that chance, not because it was a huge route for the Union – far from it. It was, at best, a draw, a very bloody one, which cost a lot of lives. It did, however, drive Lee’s forces back further south. If the Union had been led by a general slightly more interested in progress than indecisive General McClellan, Antietam might have been the huge victory that Lincoln wanted. But McClellan, even though he had 7000 more troops than General Lee, allowed Lee’s army to retreat into Virginia without being pursued.

In Washington, the Union chief was desperate, and the news of Lee heading south was enough of a victory to make Lincoln want to exploit it to maximum effect. On September 22, just days after Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. The proclamation would come into effect on January 1, 1863.

So it did free the slaves?

Not exactly. It freed the slaves in all the territories currently held by the Confederacy. Therefore, no slave was technically free. However, it did serve as a huge boost to the Union side. It put, in unequivocal terms, that the war was indeed about slavery and that if the Union won, slavery would be finished. It boosted the morale of many fighting units, and it gave un-told hope to the many southern  fragmented communities of slaves who heard about the emancipation through the grape-vine. If the Union captured territory in the south, slaves from those regions would be forever free.

By the time the war ended, the 13th Amendment  was quickly passed, officially outlawing slavery and ending a horrible period of time for citizens of African descent. It also ushered in another 100 years of struggle for true equality, but that is for another day.