Abraham Lincoln was mighty busy 150 years ago during the tumultuous year 1863, not least with proclamations. He began with the empyrean Emancipation Proclamation on January 1 and by October–despite considerable public sentiment to the contrary–he required that Americans be thankful, issuing the proclamation establishing the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Lincoln was not the first Chief Executive to ask a restless nation to give thanks together. George Washington tried it in 1789 (right off the bat!) and again in 1795, but it didn’t stick. Washington’s successor John Adams tried a different tact, twice proclaiming a national day of “fasting and humiliation” for late November. You can guess how that went over. James Madison tried the “fasting and humiliation” thing too in 1814, then didn’t mention fasting (or humiliation) in his proclamation of 1815, when he was the last president to dictate a day of Thanksgiving. That is, until Lincoln perversely took up the matter of gratitude in the year of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Lincoln celebrated, among other things, that: “Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.” It’s believed that Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation was written by Secretary of State William H. Seward, so the continuance of years with large increase of freedom is Seward’s fine formulation. The Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln apparently penned himself. We may be thankful today for the existence of both.