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What Lincoln’s Proclamation means for Americans’ Thanksgiving today

President Abraham Lincoln in many ways embodied the American dream.

He came from humble beginnings yet rose to the highest office in the land.

Born at a time when Black Americans were enslaved, he helped lead the charge to bring them into that dream.

He was elected leader of a nation that was tearing itself apart, where even brother fought against brother. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would die on the battlefield during his presidency. Yet he refused to give up on the promise of “a more perfect Union.”

And he understood that gratitude can be transformational. Just a few months after the Battle of Gettysburg, with the American Civil War still raging, he issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, drafted by his Secretary of State William Seward.

In it:

  • He called to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
  • He invited his fellow Americans to think of all “sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”
  • And he urged all Americans to observe a day of “thanksgiving and praise,” with “one heart and one voice.”

Though people around the world, including in America, had intermittently celebrated days and meals of thanksgiving (such as the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 and a 1789 proclamation by George Washington), Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 made Thanksgiving Day an official annual holiday in the United States.

Imagine that. The Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today was born at a time of pain and national division.

If Lincoln could call for gratitude in the midst of America’s most deadly war, surely we can aim for it today.

Yes, the country feels more divided today than in recent years. Neighbors refuse to speak to each other. Families are unable to come to the same table for a meal without the fear of a fight breaking out. Not only that, but we’re also recovering from a global pandemic and facing a challenging economy.

In moments like what we’re experiencing today, it’s natural to feel fear, or anger, or resentment, or pain. But rediscovering and focusing on reasons for thanks can make a difference.

Expressing gratitude can improve well-being – for individuals and our communities. It’s associated with enhanced moods, better sleep, and decreased anxiety. Scholars have also found that an attitude of gratitude can make people feel more connected to those around them.

Personally, when I focus on gratitude, I uncover reasons for hope as well. So here are three things for which I’m grateful:

  • Despite all of our challenges, Americans agree on more issues than disagree. A report by think tank Populace found that a majority of Americans – across race, gender, income, education, age, and 2020 presidential vote – agree on 8 of the top 10 aspirations Americans have for our country, including a widespread commitment to individual rights.

 

  • Our country produces people like Rodney Smith, Jr. Most folks see mowing their lawn as a chore. But Rodney sees it as an opportunity. An immigrant to America from Bermuda, Rodney looked for a way to give back. So he started mowing lawns for those who needed help, like the elderly. He later turned it into a movement, founding the Raising Men & Women Lawn Care Service and inspiring thousands of young people to participate. In doing so, he doesn’t just inspire others to serve their community, he helps them build one as well. And follow him on Twitter for the continual daily reminder of what makes America so great – people like Rodney.

  • The American dream is still possible. Earlier this year, AFP Vice President of Government Affairs Akash Chougule joined Mike Rowe’s podcast The Way I Heard It. While the topic is focused on economic policy, Akash starts the episode by sharing his personal story, describing how his family took the chance on America.

One more thing about focusing on gratitude. I’ve found that once I start looking for reasons to be grateful, I find more than I ever expected. So I’d love to hear from you on what’s making you grateful this season.

If you’d like to share your stories with me, please email me at freespeech@afphq.org.

And I wish you peace, hope, joy, and, of course, gratitude this Thanksgiving.

 

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