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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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.