IN MOST HOLIDAY HISTORIES, Sarah J. Hale is credited with spurring President Lincoln to declare the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1863. Hale was a successful poet, novelist and magazine editor—perhaps most famous today as the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She sat at the helm of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book for many years, so by 1863 Hale was one of the most influential women in America.
A LONG CAMPAIGN: It is true that Lincoln was influenced by her letter in September 1863. But the larger truth is that Hale’s lobbying had been a White House fixture for many years. She had lobbied presidents Taylor, Filmore, Pierce and Buchanan before Lincoln. At the time, Thanksgiving was common in New England states, but the only national holidays were Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. On Sept. 28, 1863, her letter to Lincoln argued that “by the noble example of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.”
What Lincoln wrote, in declaring the first national Thanksgiving, took Hale’s idea of a united festival for all Americans and described its goals in a startling way. Lincoln believed that America was wrestling tragically in defiance of God’s Providence for the nation. America’s destiny was at risk, Lincoln believed, because the nation that God destined to thrive was tearing itself apart. The Civil War represented “our national perverseness and disobedience,” in Lincoln’s words. The tragic destruction and death in army camps, sieges and battlefields was “waste,” Lincoln declared. He urged Americans to pray, not for the soldiers specifically, but for “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.”
The declaration is a striking, impassioned appeal for God to help “heal the wounds of the nation.” God’s purpose, Lincoln argued, was not in war—but in “full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
ALSO ENJOY: If you think this proclamation is fascinating, you’ll also want to read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered in 1865 shortly before his death. That famous 1865 oration echoes religious themes found in the following …
Original Text of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation
of the first National Thanksgiving Day
By the President of the United States of America.
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 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 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 defense, 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, 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 Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward, Secretary of State
Want more on Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1863?
Read our interview with Dr. Stephen Prothero of Boston University, a noted expert on the history of religion in America and, in particular, a scholar of Lincoln’s attitudes toward religion. He gives perspective on Lincoln’s approach in writing this remarkable letter to the nation about the first national Thanksgiving.