When President Abraham Lincoln wrote all of his Thanksgiving Proclamations, it was during a time of war. Most of us know the Civil War, maybe not all its ins and outs, but the gist of the deal.
The war wrought havoc on the “mystic chords” of national unity that had held the nation together through a bloody revolution, a constitutional convention, the fissure of national consensus over slavery during the first session of Congress in 1792, the conquest of the West, and the constitutional (political, institutional, and physical) compromises that came as a result.
The country held.
Finally, though, the Civil War showed us, inevitably really, that our unity was a mirage built on self-interested institutions and through legal documents. We were not yet a nation.
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 begins:
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 a war of extraordinary death, pathos, and fear, Lincoln called citizens to remember the elemental and reminded them that all gratitude begins with what we take for granted.
Fast-forward to our moment in history: We have engaged in two wars in the Middle East. We have seen terrorists wreak havoc among our allies and friends, as recently as two weeks ago, in Paris.
We have experienced a Great Recession, which brought greater focus on the class divisions that tear at the country’s civic fabric. Now, inevitably again, those class divisions dominate and separate the two parties.
We have seen the race problem deepen and become more intractable. The names Eric Garner, Tamir Rice become the faces of political brutality. We have seen its economic manifestation in Ferguson, Missouri. In black male incarceration rates.
We have seen that our political class is unprepared for our domestic and foreign crises. That, moreover, there is a crisis of faith in our politicians, a repulsion against the empty rhetoric and convoluted posturing of careerist politicians. It has produced, regrettably, something worse: Donald Trump.
We realize we no longer have Henry Clays, John Quincy Adamses nor Daniel Patrick Moynihans; politicians, that is, who care about the national interest and offer programs of reform and rejuvenation that count on the reservoir of national public character, that American can-do spirit.
We still see such spirit, though, in Silicon Valley: Google, Apple. That determination, too, pops up in states and cities across the nation to solve American problems on uniquely American terms.
So we still can be immensely grateful.
We still are the richest country in the world.
We still do enormous good in global hotspots with our military presence.
We still are the most generous country in the world.
(See, for example, the outpouring of support to Nepal during its April earthquake, especially the $10 million the U.S. government gave and the $1 million raised by the American Red Cross – more than several wealthy countries such as Japan’s 8.1 million and Britain’s $7.6 million.)
We can still revive an ideal of this country as free, fair-minded, tolerant, productive, gainful to all, and generous.
We can never attain it, though, if we forget the meaning of gratitude, for in gratitude we attain an accurate sense of ourselves, our good fortune, and our obligations.
Lincoln experienced a profound philosophical change during the Civil War, and began to have a genuine reverence for the inexplicability of human affairs.
In an acknowledgement of our insignificance, Lincoln wrote these humble words:
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.
According to cultural warriors, we are an increasingly secular people. But here’s hoping secularism does not preclude gratitude, and gratitude for the blessing of living in a great country. Existential void or not.
Chris Timmons is a native Floridian, bird-watcher, editorial columnist, and fellow with the James Madison Institute. Column courtesy of Context Florida.