As Americans’ traditional feast day approaches, I’ve been considering Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation. It’s remarkable for its stubborn optimism, achieved in part by de-emphasizing the harsh reality then encompassing the nation.
Here’s an excerpt:
“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, 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 theater of military conflict …”
The proclamation — obdurately bright in a time of unprecedented darkness — made me think of the crucifixion scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian:
In fact, laws had not been respected and obeyed: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus — the fundamental right of citizens to challenge imprisonment — and also shut down hundreds of newspapers. To the degree order and harmony prevailed, it was at the cost of trampling the Constitution.
This is not criticism. From this historic distance, it is impossible to imagine the physical carnage and emotional violence of our nation at war with itself, nor fully appreciate what was at stake. Lincoln sought to preserve the Union at all costs, though for a time — as Confederates under the brilliant leadership of Robert E. Lee won a string of victories — it seemed he would fail.
Northern troops were hobbled by a succession of incompetent generals. The most noteworthy was dashing young George McClellan, who excelled at drilling soldiers but not leading them into battle, thus squandering opportunities to end the conflict. (The president famously expressed his exasperation by remarking that “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”)
The human costs as the war dragged on were unfathomable. A year before Lincoln declared Thanksgiving, nearly 23,000 soldiers died at Antietam in the single bloodiest day in American history. Just three months before the proclamation, some 50,000 died in three deadly days at Gettysburg.
Yet in proclaiming the holiday, Lincoln described 1863 as “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” He was ever inclined to emphasize “… the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” These gifts — the blessings that inhabit our lives no less than suffering — “should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people,” he wrote.
That Lincoln never lost sight of “the better angels of our nature” in a time so susceptible to despair — indeed, when despair seemed the most rational response — is remarkable.
I’m a realist, yet it’s impossible to ignore the powerful self-actualizing aspect of attitude, its tendency to bring about the conditions it embraces. That to which we give our attention and energy grows; that which we discount withers. Lincoln’s dogged belief in the Union and in an underlying, shared goodness — even in the belly of a long, agonizing badness — eventually won the day. Then, of course, he was assassinated, and the lesser angels of our nature reasserted themselves during Reconstruction.
Always in this human existence, cause for despair, collectively and individually, as our national character and personal lives suffer from conflict and disappointment, lapses of integrity and goodwill, failures of conscience and courage. It’s easy to lose faith in our nation, in each other, in ourselves; the evidence all around invites cynicism. And yet we must keep believing in basic goodness, must keep counting our blessings, if for no other reason that despair cannot sustain life.
This Thanksgiving, then, may you enjoy the usual fat- , sugar- and salt-laden foods, but also the fluffy, fantastic and yet fortifying recipe the melancholic Lincoln embodied 155 years ago, and the irreverent Monty Python reiterated — with less eloquence but more humor — in our own time: Always look on the bright side of life.