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.

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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.

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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."