It would have been easy on Oct. 3, 1863, for President Lincoln – or anyone else – not to be thankful. The nation (or nations, depending on one’s perspective) was still mired in a terrible Civil War, and while the Union had enjoyed victories that summer in Gettysburg and Vicksburg, much bloody fighting remained. Earlier that year, Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, had been injured in a carriage “accident” caused by an assailant sabotaging the driver’s seat. Their beloved son, Willie, had died the previous year at age 11.
It was in that context that Lincoln presented a proclamation written by his secretary of state, William Seward, declaring the fourth Thursday of November “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
The proclamation – really a prayer – is a remarkable look-on-the-bright-side document. Written by Secretary of State William Seward, it describes a bountiful harvest, an expansion of American territory, and a growing population. It doesn’t ignore the horrors of the Civil War. But it does point out that Union forces had enjoyed success on the battlefield, that the United States was at peace with foreign nations, and that “order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”
This was not the first time Americans had set aside a day to give thanks. Eighty-four years earlier, the year the Constitution was ratified, President Washington had declared that Nov. 26, 1789, would be such a day. In the years following, states had set aside their own days of thanksgiving, but Lincoln’s proclamation made the practice national and, as it turned out, permanent
As bad as things sometimes have been lately, they have not been as bad as they were in the 1860s. And so, in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, let’s consider the blessings of life in 2015.
The American democratic experiment remains flawed but vibrant. The president and Congress remain unable to accomplish too much too fast, just as the system was designed. Almost two dozen candidates from a variety of backgrounds have offered themselves as presidential candidates in our competitive two-party system. Ultimately, they will gain power by ballots, not bullets.
Meanwhile, Americans remain personally free most of the time. With relatively few exceptions, they can speak and worship how they choose without fear, unlike in some parts of the world. Through honest, hard work, a person can rise from the humblest of circumstances to do great things, as Lincoln did.
While many Americans continue to struggle to make a living, the Great Recession has ended. The national unemployment rate has dropped to 5 percent, half what it was six years ago, and the economy is stable enough that the Federal Reserve is expected to increase interest rates soon.
By many quality-of-life measurements, it’s better to live in America in the 21st century than it has been to be almost anywhere else in world history. Americans who earn $32,000 a year may not feel like they are part of the “1 percent,” but globally they are, according to an interactive feature, www.globalrichlist.net, operated by CARE. Life expectancy has reached 78.8 years, the highest ever recorded in this country. For most of us, food will be plentiful this Thanksgiving, and when we turn on the faucet, clean water will appear. A free public education remains available for almost every American child. Because of recent technological advancements, it’s possible to connect with friends and strangers thousands of miles away, and new advancements promise safer driverless cars and medical treatments and cures in the not-too-distant future.
It’s no wonder that so many – immigrants and refugees alike – try so hard to reach these shores.
In Arkansas, the unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, slightly above the national average. The state budget runs a surplus as usual. The state’s 600,000 acres of lakes, 10,000 miles of streams, and 17.2 million acres of forests attract residents and visitors alike. Just as “harmony has prevailed everywhere” in Lincoln’s day, most Arkansans are nice most of the time today.
Times have changed since 1863, but this much has not: Our ability to choose what we think about this time of year. We have 364 days to dwell on our problems. The fourth Thursday of November is a day for giving thanks, again.