When you think of the first Thanksgiving, the popular image that comes to mind is that of Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a harvest feast at the Plymouth colony. While early Puritan colonists and the Wampanoags did indeed share a meal in 1621 and later national and regional leaders occasionally declared days of thanksgiving, our regular national celebration of Thanksgiving in November traces its beginnings to the Civil War. In the middle of the war, in October 1863, President Lincoln declared a National Day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated the last Thursday in November. It continued to be celebrated at that time until for decades until President Roosevelt moved it a week earlier during the Great Depression in hope of stimulating the economy by extending the Christmas shopping season.
Lincoln’s action was influenced, at least in part, by Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and activist who had been advocating for a national thanksgiving holiday for the previous seventeen years. In her letters and editorials she asserted that the day could be unifying for the nation.
Lincoln’s proclamation reflects this hope for peace and unity. He began by recounting the reasons for the gratitude. He observed that despite “a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” Americans maintained their laws and kept peace with other nations. They expanded farming, industry, mining, and shipping. The population grew despite the losses on the battlefields. Lincoln predicted that the country would survive to be stronger and more vigorous than ever “with a large increase of freedom.”
Despite these blessings, Lincoln did not forget the strife and losses of the previous years. He called for “humble penitence” as well prayer for God’s care on “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.” Further, he called on Americans 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, tranquility, and union.”
Lincoln's proclamation set the precedent for Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday. In a time of national crisis, he recognized the importance of a unifying holiday, celebrating freedom, fortitude, and hope for peace.