As with so much in our lives, Thanksgiving has become a cultural battleground. Politicians and pundits debate whether we should use the day to memorialize the tragedy of the Indians or to celebrate the new liberties of the Pilgrims in America.
Yet the true origins of Thanksgiving have little to do with the Pilgrims and the Indians, and everything to do with the American triumph against slavery. Far from being divisive and outmoded, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday for our modern era, demonstrating how we can both uphold and renew our traditions. Most important, Thanksgiving reminds us of how America took its earlier promise of freedom and used it to end the stain of slavery.
In early America, colonies set aside special days of thanks to “Providence” or “Almighty God.” Such days of thanksgiving were usually for good harvests or military successes, like the one proclaimed by the Continental Congress in December 1777 after Gen. George Washington’s victory at the Battle of Saratoga.
But the idea of a regular and national Thanksgiving Day was the work of one woman. Sarah Josepha Hale had already ensured her everlasting fame by composing the rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” when she decided to make a campaign for a thanksgiving holiday. Beginning in 1846, Mrs. Hale wrote letters to every president asking for an annual day of thanks to unite the nation. Her magazine articles spread the campaign across the country.
President Abraham Lincoln finally took Mrs. Hale up on the idea. It was October 1863, just after the Battle of Gettysburg, when Mr. Lincoln declared a national “day of Thanksgiving” to celebrate the Union’s victories in the Civil War. His proclamation said it was “fit and proper” that the country should give thanks for success in a war that would eventually mean “a large increase of freedom.”
The timing of the first Thanksgiving is important. Earlier in the year, Mr. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had turned the Civil War into a battle against slavery. Exactly one week before the first Thanksgiving, the president delivered a speech to commemorate soldiers who had died in that war.
In the Gettysburg Address, Mr. Lincoln argued that the Declaration of Independence had created an America “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He said it was “fitting and proper” to consecrate the battlefield to those soldiers who had fought and died for that ideal. Mr. Lincoln knew that the ideal had not been fully realized, but he hoped that the Civil War would ensure a “new birth of freedom” for those for whom the promises of the declaration had not yet been fulfilled.
Sarah Josepha Hale would have appreciated her Thanksgiving holiday’s being turned into a celebration of the battle against slavery. Her first novel, “Northwood: Or, Life North and South,” published in 1827, was one of the earliest denouncing the sins of slavery. In it, she explained not only how slavery destroyed African-American lives, but also how it corrupted the life and morals of the masters as well.
Mrs. Hale spent years writing other articles and stories about the baleful effects of slavery. Like Mr. Lincoln, she also wrote about how the Civil War could reunite the nation on a new and higher plane of freedom.
After the war, white Southerners remained suspicious of the “Yankee abolitionist holiday.” When early Reconstruction-era governors proclaimed Thanksgiving Days in the South, white people ignored them, even while Black people and Republicans feasted. It took decades before Thanksgiving became a truly national holiday. It also took decades before most of the country layered on the tradition of the Pilgrims and Indians as part of that holiday.
A Thanksgiving celebrated by former slaves and abolitionists is one that we too can embrace. Those of us exulting in the day don’t have to ignore our nation’s sins. Yet we can remember that our nation was founded on a peerless ideal, one that promised the expansion of freedom to ever greater numbers of people. For the long and difficult struggle to achieve that ideal, and for our many successes along the way, we can and should be thankful.
Judge Glock is an economic historian and senior policy adviser for the Cicero Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
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