Thankful for past and present.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Thanksgiving in a Nation Divided

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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This year Thanksgiving Day falls in the midst of turbulence: anger and grief and division at home, worry about threats from abroad. It may be that recent years have been filled with too many such moments. The state of crisis seems perpetual.

We’re hardly the first generation to ride stormy seas into Thanksgiving. It might be useful to seek wisdom in the words of two presidents who each issued a Thanksgiving proclamation during a period of anguish and fear -- as it happens, exactly 200 and 150 years ago.

President James Madison’s 1814 Thanksgiving proclamation came during the direst days of the War of 1812. Madison called upon the people of the young nation, “in the present time of public calamity and war,” to gather “in their respective religious assemblies” to seek forgiveness for their sins and, at the same time, to give thanks for “the distinguished favors conferred on the American people.” He further proposed prayers that God would continue to grant “the precious advantages flowing from political institutions so auspicious to their safety against dangers from abroad, to their tranquillity at home, and to their liberties, civil and religious.”

It’s easy to forget the horrors the war wreaked upon the U.S. The British invasions are well known to schoolchildren. More readily forgotten is the British blockade. By the fall of 1814, the world’s mightiest fleet had pushed the U.S. to the brink of bankruptcy. Madison nevertheless called upon his countrymen to ask forgiveness and to give thanks for the nation’s many blessings.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was presiding over a country riven by what remains by far the most deadly war in its history. Lincoln proposed in his Thanksgiving proclamation that God be thanked for “defending us with his guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad, and vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household.” Further, he wrote, God “has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions.”

Like Madison, Lincoln asked his fellow Americans to spend time in humility and prayer: “And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid, that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust, and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the great Disposer of events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the, land which it has pleased him to assign as a dwelling-place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”

What animates these proclamations whose bicentennial and sesquicentennial we observe this year is a belief in the necessity of gratitude for the remarkable advantages that the U.S. enjoys, and also in the importance of accepting those advantages with an appropriate humility. The institutions of which Madison wrote -- the remarkable constitutional structure designed as a guarantor of liberty -- has no existence outside of our constant nurture of it. The inestimable blessings of which Lincoln wrote will continue to provide sustenance for our posterity only if we work to make it so.

What does that mean in practice, as we celebrate another Thanksgiving Day? The simplest lesson is also the most obvious: if in times of invasion and Civil War, these presidents were able to call upon us to put aside our divisions and to approach our blessings with gratitude and humility, we their inheritors should do no less.

We’re a divided nation in so many ways. In our responses to everything from the Affordable Care Act to Ferguson to climate change, we’re constantly at one another's throats, treating those who disagree as enemies to be derided rather than fellow citizens who are part of a common project. College students are being taught to ban speakers whose messages discomfit them. Political parties, egged on by talk show hosts, are raising money through raising fears of diabolical conspiracies.

Even Lincoln, in the midst of so desperate a war, conceded that the enemy was “of our own household.” This was an enemy actually being fought on the battlefield. The very day before Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving,  the Union had won its costly victory at the Battle of Cedar Creek, suffering more than 5,600 casualties, including some 3,400 dead. Yet Lincoln evidenced a belief that those who fought against the Union were not monsters, but wayward brothers.

We’re an imperfect country, and always will be. The “distinguished favors” and “precious advantages” of which Madison spoke may not always be equally distributed, but they are what mark the nation as distinctive. We can do no greater honor to our forebears than adopting an attitude of respect and humility across our differences, as we give thanks for the remarkable project that is America.

  1. Some sources give the date of the 1864 Thanksgiving proclamation as Oct. 22, 24 or 25. But the date on the proclamation itself is Oct. 20, one day after the battle.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net