Thanksgiving in 2019: Let's put our differences aside

Thanksgiving in 2019: Let's put our differences aside
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As we gather with friends and family around tables topped with turkey and pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, we feast and give thanks in seemingly uncivil times. Last month Georgetown University’s Battleground Civility poll warned us that "the average voter believes the U.S. is two-thirds of the way to the edge of a civil war."

Though Thanksgiving and civil war don't seem to go together, the timing of our annual Thanksgiving tradition was actually born during America’s Civil War. 

When President Lincoln called on “my fellow citizens in every part of the United States” to give thanks “with one heart and voice by the whole American people,” on Oct. 3, 1863, he received immediate pushback in the polarized press.

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Newspapers in the South went to war against Thanksgiving.

“King Abraham has issued a proclamation appointing the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving and prayer in Yankeedom,” South Carolina’s Charleston Courier clamored on Oct. 12.

Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle went further on Oct. 15 by accusing the long-winded Lincoln of fake news. “The document is on par with the rest of the productions that have been sent out from Washington. Bombastic in tone and full of false statements. In a Thanksgiving proclamation one would suppose that Lincoln would tell the truth, but he has not."  

Still another newspaper opposed Lincoln’s attempt to usurp state holidays for a united national one. Up until then, governors in each state had set aside different days for Thanksgiving, which was confusing. 

“Now Lincoln comes out this year with an appointment of his own in November, in order to supersede state appointments and teach the people to look to the federal government for holidays as well as everything else,” Georgia’s Macon Telegraph railed on Oct. 14 against this “darling scheme of the Lincolnites.” 

They predicted that: “A Grand National Thanksgiving is hereafter to supersede the state Thanksgivings. To get rid of the states in every possible attribute of government is an absorbing idea with the Lincoln administration.”

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How did Northern newspapers respond? In contrast they put a positive spin on giving thanks. Cleveland's Plain Dealer was thrilled on Oct. 25 that “the whole North will be eating Thanksgiving dinners and mingling in social glee together upon that occasion. What a grand spectacle!”

The Plain Dealer decried the “few old croakers in the community who will growlingly assert that we have nothing much to be thankful for this year.” Despite the war, Lincoln wanted Americans to give thanks for blessings, such as economic and population growth.

The Plain Dealer was grateful for their victory at Gettysburg. “We can be thankful - yeah a thousand times thankful — for the victories over the rebels achieved by our glorious soldiers.”

With all of this political polarization, when and how did Americans unite around Thanksgiving as a national November holiday?

It took longer than 10 years. 

"In the New England states, Thanksgiving Day is looked forward to with even greater pleasure than Christmas," Georgia's Augusta Chronicle derided a decade later  on Nov. 27, 1873, while observing that those closer to Plymouth Rock "prepare mountains of donuts and pumpkin pies for the occasion, the fattened goose is killed and everybody is full of the event."

Instead in the South, Thanksgiving was still merely a day off, a time to close the banks, not a day to feast.

"In the middle and Southern States less attention is paid to the day, beyond its observation as a legal holiday and the services at the churches."

Though Southerners still weren't feasting on pumpkin pie, they were beginning to give thanks, an improvement from their attitude against gratitude during Lincoln's era. 

"The South has cause for gratitude. Our country, desecrated by a long and bloody Civil War, has been steadily recovering from the effects of that disastrous conflict. Our burned homes rebuilt . . . Our town has prospered and thrived," another writer for the  Augusta Chronicle noted.

Giving thanks and counting their blessings eventually brought Southerners around to be feasting and fully embracing Thanksgiving. The proof wasn’t in the pudding or football but in the turkey.

“The traditional Thanksgiving turkey has taken his accustomed place in our market,” Georgia’s Macon Telegraph proudly published on Nov. 25, 1883, while noting that local boys  were enjoying a game that literally ruffled his gobbleship’s feathers. 

Twenty years after Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as the annual day of Thanksgiving, Southerners and Northerners alike were all feasting. Counting their blessings is what ended the South's war against Thanksgiving.

A prayer published by New York's  Jewish Messenger shortly after Lincoln's Proclamation predicted that giving thanks to God would make help make Americans stronger and bring them together. 

“To him, enthroned on high, be the glory, the praise, the Thanksgiving! In humility and sincerity we bow . . . and offer him a hymn of thankfulness, that the nation has not been prostrated by the fearful blow struck from its midst, but that it is emerging from the ordeal stronger and better than ever.”

Like this prayer, Thanksgiving in 2019 can be a day to give thanks for the good things in our personal lives and the positive things in our nation — despite our civil divisions and trials. 

Instead of discussing differences over a turkey dinner, taking time to show appreciation for the people at our table, their talents, their presence and their lives is a way to count blessings and overcome differences. Making thanksgiving about others and showing empathy over emphasizing our own opinions is a way to emerge stronger and better than before. 

The Augusta Chronicle's prayer of 1873 is still relevant to life today: "Let us forget then what little of misfortune, what little of trouble we have experienced and remembering only the blessings which have been so bounteously bestowed upon us as a people and as individuals."

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of “America’s Star-Spangled Story” and “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.” She is a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush.