Give Thanks for What?

At tables all across the United States, families will be gathering to share a meal heavy on starch, alcohol, and awkward conversation. Inevitably, someone will look around the table and suggest that everyone go around and offer one thing that they’re thankful for, which will cause a chain reaction of people reaching for the wine and averting their eyes, trying desperately to think of something non-controversial or unrelated to personal health. Some may even ask what we have to be thankful for, in a year where we saw international terrorism reach new depths of depravity, nations gripped by brutal civil wars, a disease epidemic, civil unrest, police violence, proxy wars, hundreds of thousands of refugees, partisan politics, airplane tragedies, devastating earthquakes, the death of Volkswagen’s integrity, and more singles by Justin Bieber.

One could have asked that question of Abraham Lincoln in October of 1863. The United States was ripped in half by a civil war that refused to end. After the shining victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in the summer of 1863, the status quo had returned that fall, even after thousands of more Americans were killed in battle that year. In the east, the Army of the Potomac played a game of “will they, won’t they” with the Army of Northern Virginia, neither commander able to outmaneuver the other in northern Virginia. In the west, the formerly victorious Army of the Cumberland was besieged in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after suffering an embarrassing loss at the Battle of Chickamauga. It appeared that the winter would arrive to end the fighting, leaving the situation little changed from the year prior after a promising summer. There had been civil unrest in many northern states, as well, in opposition to the draft and Lincoln’s policies. Mobs turned violent in New York, requiring troops who had just been in combat at Gettysburg to restore order with military force. Bloody guerrilla warfare was rife in Kansas and Missouri.

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Sketch by Alfred Waud of Thanksgiving in Camp

Still, when Lincoln sat down with his Secretary of State William Seward on October 3, 1863, they were able to find much to be thankful for:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies…In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.”

It was for this reason that Lincoln stated that the last Thursday in November should be set aside as a day of Thanksgiving, in the tradition first begun by the Puritans of the 17th century. Days of Thanksgiving were often proclaimed throughout the colonies, and later the states, but this was the first national proclamation that assigned a specific time for future celebrations. Lincoln and Seward also advised that while giving thanks for the good, that the people of the United States should not forget those less fortunate, and, “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Well. If in the midst of a devastating Civil War, Lincoln could find something to be thankful for, then, dammit, so can we.

If we see wars and conflict, it means that people still stand against evil. In the midst of disease and disaster, we see those who sacrifice their health and safety to help their fellow humans. Amid partisan political wrangling, we see our great American Republic at work, allowing the free flowing of ideas. In the midst of scandals or reveals, we see journalists and employees willing to stand up to do the right thing. When states close their doors to the helpless, we see groups of individuals go to their aid. The human spirit does not bow to terror in Paris or tragedy in Nepal. Not the thunder of bombs nor the ranting of dictators can kill the vibrant light of the human soul. Fear may darken our eyes, but fear cannot stand against our collective determination for peace and justice. Oh yes, we can find things to give thanks for.

Not only that, we can open our nation’s doors to the “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” from another civil war, one happening at this very minute. This is precisely the wrong time to say that the United States cannot afford to take the risk to give refuge to those seeking safety from the hell that is Syria. At a time when we, as a country, join together to celebrate the peace and abundance that our nation enjoys, from Thanksgiving through Christmas, we should be willing to spread that to those who have been denied these things through the horrors of war. We cannot allow fears over security trump our basic duties to our fellow man, and our values as a nation. Let us use this season of thankfulness to give others who have nothing something to be thankful for.

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