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In this thanksgiving, give thanks for the principles that unite us

Americans have learned to identify Thanksgiving with Pilgrims and Native Americans joining, despite their differences, for a shared feast at Plymouth Colony. The symbolic nature of this historic gathering is powerful and should never escape us as a nation. However, in this divided political climate, with a stormy midterm election just weeks away, the country would also be remiss to forget the reason Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the first place: to awaken a sense of history. and common principles of America during the most tense and divided of times.

While George Washington originally called for a “public day of thanksgiving and prayer,” his vision only became a reality when President Abraham Lincoln made it a reality nearly 75 years later in hopes of calm and unite the nation during the civil war.

In 1863, two years after the start of the terrible war, the fate of the country hung in the balance. Would it continue to be, as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, a nation “designed in freedom and devoted to proposition that all men are created equal?” Although the bloody Battle of Gettysburg may have been one of the military turning points of the Civil War, it did not mark a turning point in the hearts and minds of much of the American citizenry, who continued to fight with weapons and words.

Lincoln recognized this and sought to change it. That’s why, just weeks before his Gettysburg Address, he announced by proclamation that the nation would celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday in November 1863.

In powerful and uplifting words, the 16th President proclaimed that 1863 had been “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and wholesome skies…despite the waste that has been made in camp, siege, and battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of increased strength and vigor”, could “expect a continuance of years with a great increase of freedom”.

Lincoln longed for both sides to remember that they were still Americans who needed to be united by the principles of 1776 and the memory of the previous generation’s struggle for independence. And Lincoln knew they should be grateful for such a legacy.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 11: View of the Abraham Lincoln Statue at the Lincoln Memorial during the 20th Anniversary 9/11 Commemoration and District Cup Polo Game at West Potomac Park on September 11, 2021 in Washington, DC .
Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

But they also had work. As Lincoln advised his fellow citizens, they should turn to God in “humble penance for our national wickedness and disobedience, commending to his tender care all who have been widowed, orphaned, bereaved, or victims of lamentable civil war in which we are. inevitably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the nation’s wounds and restore it as soon as it is consistent with divine purposes for the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and the Union.

Throughout the horrible war, Lincoln continued to believe that Americans should come together in gratitude for our founding principles and always strive to uphold those principles. And so, at the end of the war, he promised not only “a new birth of liberty” but also a new peace with “wickedness to none; charity to all”.

We must follow Lincoln’s advice today. If Americans in the Civil War could step back and give thanks for what bound them then, why can’t we do it now?

It is still possible today if we remember what one of Abraham Lincoln’s heroes, Thomas Jefferson, said about our political differences. After the bitter election of 1800, Jefferson said that when it comes to political parties, Americans may go by “different names,” but most importantly, we are “brothers of the same principle.” The truths that Americans believe in, expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, make us “one people,” according to Jefferson, and those truths outweigh any differences we might have.

The words of Lincoln and Jefferson still hold hope for us today. Americans can be “brothers” even after this election season, if we continue to understand and love our country’s history and founding principles. They are what makes us “one people”. But we cannot forget them or turn our backs on them. If we do, we risk becoming as deeply divided as when Lincoln spoke.

So, in the midst of this Thanksgiving season, let’s remember the history and the common principles that bind us together. If we could do it in 1863 in the heat of a brutal Civil War, we can try it by gathering with our family and friends for Thanksgiving this year.

Dr. Jeffrey Sikkenga is the executive director of the Ashbrook Center, an independent academic center that seeks to educate Americans about their country’s history and principles through the study of primary source documents.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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