Brian Mittge Commentary: Join Lincoln and Washington in Giving Thanks

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It’s no surprise to longtime readers of this column that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s not because of the food, although I love turkey as much as the next guy. (White meat, dark meat — all that meat is sweet to me. Just load me up.)

And while family togetherness is wonderful, I don’t need a holiday for that. I love a get-together any time of the year.

No, I just love that our nation has a holiday dedicated to the idea of thankfulness.

What a brilliant idea. Our nation has officially recognized the Thanksgiving holiday since the earliest days of the fight for independence.

General George Washington proclaimed Dec. 18, 1777 as the first national thanksgiving day in honor of the American victory at Saratoga, New York.

A dozen years later, after being elected our nation’s first president, Washington issued a proclamation — requested by both chambers of Congress — declaring Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

That proclamation didn’t establish a permanent national holiday, however. It was President Abraham Lincoln who did that during the Civil War.

Lincoln’s entire 1863 Thanksgiving address (written by his Secretary of State, William Seward) is a remarkable document. I highly commend it to you. It 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.”

It goes on from there, offering thanks for the work of American ploughs, ships, axes and mines.

And how about this simple expression of American hope: “The country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

It’s sobering to think that Seward and Lincoln said this in the middle of our nation’s darkest hour, our deadliest war, our time of greatest division, our most monumental struggle to overcome our original sin.

All the nation’s strengths, Lincoln declared in his Thanksgiving proclamation, “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.”

Today our nation feels rent by division, our public discourse sour and suspicious. How can we give thanks for an America so sullen and disunified?

It’s important to remember that our country has gone through much harder times and still found itself thankful.

This week, as all of America pauses for a centuries-old tradition of giving thanks together, I urge you to take time to reflect on your blessings and give thanks for all that still can unite us as Americans.

And if you’re the praying type, join Lincoln as he urged us to “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.”

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Brian Mittge gives thanks for his simple life in rural Lewis County. Drop him a line at brianmittge@hotmail.com.

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