Michael C. Phillip writes about the spirit of unity that shapes the history of Thanksgiving.
Most Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, who dedicated a day (or three) of reflection and feasting in thanksgiving to God for providing for them in a new land. Indeed, this is how the holiday as we now celebrate it first began.
But to know that story is only part of Thanksgiving’s history, and partial knowledge begets partial appreciation. In America, there is another, equally important association steeped in our history that we cannot afford to forget, especially now, when our nation is more divided in many ways than it is united.
Ever since the Pilgrims, days of thanks were held in response to particular occasions. America at that time was deeply religious, and after the Revolutionary War, Congress periodically issued proclamations specifying a particular day (not necessarily in autumn, and not every year) for the country to give thanks to God.
Following the Continental Army’s victory over the British at the battle of Saratoga, for instance, George Washington, in his General Orders of December 17, 1777, reminded his troops:
“Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us.”
As America grew into a nation spanning the continent, the practice of setting aside an annual day of thanksgiving was adopted at the state level following the autumn harvest. But due to America’s diverse regional climates, the day on which it was celebrated varied from state to state.
In hindsight, the lack of commonality was a tragic symbol of the nation’s division in matters that went beyond just agricultural.
In 1863, America was three years into civil war with no end in sight. The Confederacy had just been delivered a massive blow at Gettysburg by Union forces in July of that year, but by September the Confederates battled back and defeated the Union at the battle of Chickamauga. These two battles would go down as the bloodiest of the entire war, with nearly 12,000 Americans dead and over 50,000 wounded between them.
Just two weeks after the battle of Chickamauga, on October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation specifying a common date for the entire nation to celebrate Thanksgiving:
“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 and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Lincoln asked the nation to pause and remember the many ways in which Providence had smiled upon them, even during such terrible conflict. The blessings Lincoln mentioned were blessings partial neither to the North nor to the South; they were blessings shared by all. Lincoln used the proclamation to remind the nation of their common humanity at a time when their apparent division couldn’t be more gaping.
The irony of its timing was surpassed only by its genius: Lincoln suspended the nation’s division, if just for a moment, by appealing to a common gratitude steeped in shared anguish. He called the nation to
“…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 addressing the divided nation as one people, the nation bore witness to something divine: a leader who, in the midst of a massive rebellion against his own authority, was treating his enemies as his brothers.
Lincoln had the capacity to do this because he understood gratitude’s supernatural ability to surmount division and bring unity out of fragmentation. Gratitude is a virtue, and the glory of virtues is in their mysterious ability to unite.
Gratitude is particularly powerful in that it cuts through the pride that keeps us at a distance from one another, especially those different from ourselves. When we are humbled, when we are reminded of our true/actual position in relation to those around us, the platform on which we have placed ourselves disappears. We are able to see our neighbor at eye level, and only at that point are we capable of empathy. Absent humility, empathy is not possible. And empathy is exactly what Lincoln was trying to evoke from Americans in his Thanksgiving Proclamation.
The Civil War was fought to secure the “United States” not just in name, but also in fact. Today, that fact is unraveling. We find ourselves in an era of division not seen since the close of the Civil War. 69% of Americans view the nation as “greatly divided” on first principles. And when faith in government is at an all time low, who is to save us from complete disintegration?
But Lincoln, just like Washington and the rest of the Founding Fathers, understood that the virtue of gratitude could overcome even the deepest divide in a people. They believed that gratitude was an indispensible trait of being American. Indeed, it is a requirement, for unity in a free republic isn’t possible without it. In a nation bound together by values, not by blood or ethnicity, the practice of gratitude is essential.
Gratitude lies behind the unity we are able to achieve. When gratitude fades, so does our unity. As Americans, we practice the habit of gratitude because it reminds us of our common humanity and our dependence on those around us for our flourishing. It aims us towards the common good instead of our own good at the expense of others.
It seems we have spent too much time erecting barriers that separate us from one another, when what we should be doing is finding points of common ground on which to engage and serve one another.
At the point of greatest division, Lincoln called his generation to rise above their differences and remember the values they shared in common as Americans. He did this in the name of gratitude. May we do the same this Thanksgiving.
–Originally published on philanthro.pe
–Photo: Mr. T in DC/Flickr