Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued Presidential Proclamation 106. With this Proclamation, the United States had a national day of Thanksgiving, on the last Thursday of November every year.

In his Proclamation, the President alluded to the ongoing Civil War in his words “civil strife.” He referenced those suffering loss as a result of the conflict, and appealed to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, 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, and 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, tranquillity and Union.

Lincoln had received letters from Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and editor of Godey Lady’s Book who had been campaigning for a national day of Thanksgiving since 1846. Hale wrote letters to presidents and politicians, and editorials and articles advocating for a day of Thanksgiving celebrated by all states on the same day, believing that a unifying day could help ease growing tensions and divisions between the north and the south.

You can teach about this document and its place in national politics in our new online activity Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Students will read a brief summary of the origins of Thanksgiving, then examine President Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation that created a national holiday.

In the activity, students will also study an 1863 engraving by Thomas Nast and connect the two documents, identifying how the engraving reflects the wording in the Proclamation. Students will conclude by sharing reasons why a national day of Thanksgiving has been important to the United States. This activity, aimed at grades 5-8, can be used to learn more about the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, including how Presidents and Congress create national holidays, or in a unit on a divided nation and the Civil War.

President George Washington had issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government on October 3, 1789 – designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving” to be held on “Thursday the 26th day of November.”

Since Abraham Lincoln, presidents have issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation every year, appointing the day set by Lincoln – the “last Thursday in November” as the official day of national Thanksgiving. Though not a requirement, Presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving have served as an enduring tradition offering a unique look into the various struggles that were affecting Americans around this time of year. It is customary for each President to release a statement every year to officially acknowledge the nationwide celebration of the holiday.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. After protests from across the nation, Congress established the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday, following the passage of a joint resolution, H.J. Res. 41, by the House of Representatives on October 6, 1941, declaring the “last Thursday in November a legal holiday.” The Senate then passed an amendment “making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday.”

You can access more primary sources related to Thanksgiving Proclamations and the holiday on DocsTeach.

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