The Magazine

Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving

Of Puritans, prayer, and the Capitol dome.

Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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FOUR THEMES FLOW TOGETHER AT one of the most remarkable points in American history--the evening when Abraham Lincoln for the last time proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving. It was April 11, 1865: two days after the Civil War ended with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox; four days before the president was murdered. Our national Thanksgiving Day is a good time to remember the president who had more to do with the institution of Thanksgiving and the actual practice of thanking God than any other, and to recall his last public speech.

On that misty April evening, the world had a rare glimpse of the symbolism of a powerful prophecy literally fulfilled, if only for a few moments. The brilliant "city on a hill" that the 17th-century Puritan settlers spoke of seemed embodied in Washington, as the capital sprang to life in a blaze of gaslight. The president spoke of the nation's long-sought victory in terms not of triumph but of reconciliation, and of the nation's debt to God.

Some of Lincoln's friends and admirers, recalling that night, remembered the president as if he were Moses looking "into the Promised Land of Peace from the Pisgah summit," as one of them, the journalist Noah Brooks, wrote. Lincoln like Moses stood at the very brink of the promised land he would never enter. (It's hard not to see Lincoln as the greatest religious figure this country has ever produced.)

Thanksgiving itself is theme number one. In 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated the famous first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Many other days of thanksgiving were proclaimed by American colonial governments. President George Washington decreed one for the new nation in 1789, and another in 1795. Thanksgiving was celebrated intermittently after that until Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November, 1864, and this time the holiday stuck.

Lincoln's devoutness grew throughout his life; when he spoke of God, he never spoke pro forma. In his message proclaiming that November 1864 Thanksgiving, he said that the Lord "has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war." And he prayed for the "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." The Biblical language is typical of Lincoln. Like many Puritan-minded Americans, he thought of his country as a new promised land.

Thanksgiving has been celebrated annually ever since. But the day of thanksgiving Lincoln proposed in his last public speech that final April of his life was a bonus, over and above the annual observance.

* * *

My second theme is the Capitol dome. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the enormous iron dome we know today was only partly built. Work stopped when the war started. Contemporary photos show a mammoth two-layer wedding cake without the dome that was meant to sit on top, or the cylindrical lantern with the enormous statue of Freedom at the very top.

The English are fascinated by the Houses of Parliament, a great building and brilliant artistic achievement built largely during the 19th century. Americans pay remarkably little attention to the Capitol, a great building and brilliant artistic achievement built largely during the 19th century. Before the great dome and other massive extensions were added, the Capitol Building was decorous and pleasant--vaguely suggesting a Victorian zoo house. Ambitious changes transformed it into one of the world's most majestic structures. No other building has its sheer, commanding presence--without a trace of the pompous, the overbearing, or the domineering.

The new dome was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter; construction began in 1859. When the war started, the construction company paused--and waited--and pondered--and finally continued. The dome was finished at last in 1863; the great statue was placed on top at the end of the year. Many Americans saw the finished dome as a symbol of the North's resolve to win the Civil War.

* * *

On that April night in 1865, Washington was in a mood to celebrate, and the president was expected to speak. "An immense throng of people," writes Noah Brooks, "with bands, banners, and loud huzzahs, poured into the semicircular avenue in front of the Executive Mansion." The president appeared at a second-story window. He prepared to speak. "Cheers upon cheers, wave after wave of applause, rolled up," Brooks writes, "the President patiently standing until it was all over."

Now the third theme enters. Washington was lit up that night. But to understand those lights in the context of American history, we must go back to the ship Arabella, flagship of a small fleet carrying John Winthrop and a group of Puritans from England to Massachusetts in 1630. Before disembarking, Winthrop contemplated the future of their settlement in America. He wrote (with the famous Biblical passage in Matthew 5:14 in mind--"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid"), "Wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us." Over the centuries many Americans recalled Winthrop's words. Ronald Reagan was one; he spoke of America as a "shining city on a hill," and used the image to help explain why America must be a beckoning light of freedom, and win the Cold War.

On the night of Lincoln's last speech, the magnificent new dome atop the Capitol atop Capitol Hill was all lit up, and the Capitol building must have seemed (at that promising time of gratitude and peace) like a shining city on a hill. "The night was misty," Brooks writes, "and the exhibition was a splendid one. The reflection of the illuminated dome of the Capitol on the moist air above was remarked as being especially fine; it was seen many miles away. Arlington House, across the river, the old home of Lee, was brilliantly lighted, and rockets and colored lights blazed on the lawn."

* * *

And finally there was Lincoln's speech, my fourth theme.

Most of it dealt with the fine print of postwar reconstruction--whether Louisiana, having repented, and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, should be allowed back into the Union immediately. Naturally Lincoln said yes. He also said that "in the midst of this"--the city's and the Union's rejoicing--"He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated."

And that ended Lincoln's career--as a great American, savior of the Union, liberator of the slaves. Our greatest president, who spoke repeatedly of the nation's duty to thank God.

* * *

The Union was in a good mood that night and deserved to be; it had fought a terrifically hard war to the finish. Lincoln hated slavery, but led the Northern states into the Civil War strictly to preserve the Union. Public opinion wouldn't have supported a war to end slavery. But as the fighting continued and the casualties mounted, public thinking shifted. In September 1862, Lincoln changed the whole character of the war by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in rebellious parts of the nation. He understood the Proclamation merely as a first step; he intended for all slaves to be freed by constitutional means (which the Thirteenth Amendment accomplished).

We are fighting a different war today. Like the Civil War, it began for reasons of self-interest and self-defense--fair grounds for war. Today we see a larger goal: to liberate Iraq; to fight tyranny and spread democracy. The casualties of Iraq are minute relative to those of the Civil War, though the grief caused by each is just as great; and the Iraq war is proving (like the Civil War) to be longer and harder than we ever imagined. Do we have the resolve and steady purpose and high ideals and guts we had then?

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. His book on Americanism is due to be published next year by Doubleday.