A tale of two strife-filled, hope-filled Thanksgivings
Much like 154 years ago this week when Republican President Abraham Lincoln first officially declared the fourth Thursday of November a national holiday, today’s observance of Thanksgiving finds America in a troubling state of stark division.
In November 1863, 18 months before his assassination in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., Lincoln lamented the perverse divide of the nation, then most visible in the Civil War that ripped the nation in two and ultimately claimed the lives of 620,000 American soldiers before a Union victory in 1865.
He appealed to a higher authority for assistance to mend the country and beseeched all U.S. citizens to offer “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.”
Yet in spite of that litany of gloom, Lincoln nonetheless found the wherewithal to muster up reasons for giving thanks for a bounty of blessings that many Americans – particularly those disengaged from the war – still could count and savor.
“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore,” Lincoln so eloquently recited.
He concluded, “The country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with a large increase of freedom.”
Flash forward to November 2017. Another Republican president, Donald J. Trump, has issued his own national proclamation of Thanskgiving that also highlights disasters, tensions and stains on our national fabric. Indeed Trump’s tone resembles that of Lincoln in describing the state of the nation.
He speaks of the “succession of tragedies that have stunned and shocked our Nation – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; the wildfires that ravaged the West; and, the horrific acts of violence and terror in Las Vegas, New York City, and Sutherland Springs.”
To that list, he may well have added the shameful increase in hate crimes based on race, religion or ethnicity; the growing realization that massive numbers of American women have silently endured years of painful and debilitating sexual harassment and assault; or the heightened toxicity of political discourse in the country that, as in 1863, has split the nation into two distinct and warring camps.
Locally as well, gloom dominated the landscape. Over the past year, Greater Youngstown has endured hundreds of job losses, political sleaze and corruption, a mounting opiate epidemic plus ongoing educational dysfunction and appallingly high crime rates in the city.
But just as during the height of our uncivil Civil War, men and women of goodwill continue to share heaping helpings of compassion, perseverance and hope. Trump reminds us of those quintessential American traits as well in his Thanksgiving proclamation.
“We have witnessed the generous nature of the American people. In the midst of heartache and turmoil, we are grateful for the swift action of the first responders, law enforcement personnel, military and medical professionals, volunteers, and everyday heroes who embodied our infinite capacity to extend compassion and humanity to our fellow man. As we mourn these painful events, we are ever confident that the perseverance and optimism of the American people will prevail.”
Throughout our history, Americans have used those qualities to continually expand personal liberties and enhance our quality of life far beyond levels ever envisioned by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock or the Founding Fathers at Independence Hall. We must today recharge that resilience as one means to overcome today’s challenges and to ameliorate the American experience, an experience that all should give bountiful thanks for today.