This is a guest post by Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
On October 3, 1863, following the hard-fought Union victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln asked the nation to commemorate the event in a spirit of gratitude by celebrating November 26, 1863, as an official day of Thanksgiving.
Secretary of State William Seward penned the address for Lincoln. In it, the nation was called upon to set aside the fourth Thursday of November in the years to come as a national holiday. This was in part a gesture back to 17th- and 18th-century America, when days of humility and thanksgiving were announced as a means to unite the population in a moment of gratitude and prayer.
George Washington called for a day of “Public Thanksgiving and Prayer,” when he stepped into his first term as the nation’s first president. The practice fell to the side after Thomas Jefferson took office, as he rejected the overt religious tones of such a proclamation. No further official Thanksgiving announcements were made until Lincoln called upon the nation in 1863.
The Rev. William Augustus Muhlenberg, a prominent Episcopal clergyman, educator, and the founder of St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, was so taken by Lincoln’s proclamation that he wrote the lyrics for a hymn, “Give Thanks All Ye People” (music by Joseph W. Turner) as a celebration of the moment. The hymn was a metrical version of the President’s address.
In a letter to the editor of the New York Times on November 17, 1863, Henry W. Bellows, an American clergyman and president of the United States Sanitary Commission, revealed the impetus behind Muhlenberg’s hymn: The President’s proclamation “made our ‘Harvest Home’ a National Festival; a significant and blessed augury of that ‘more perfect Union,’ in which, with God’s blessing, the war shall leave us as a people.”
It was only fitting, Bellows suggested, that the hymn be called “The President’s Hymn.”
He wrote: “Solicitous to have the highest authority given to the use of this National Hymn, I obtained the reluctant consent of its writer (author also of the music to which it is set) to ask our Chief Magistrate’s permission to style it ‘The President’s Hymn.’ The Secretary of State, through whom the application was made, telegraphed me a few hours afterwards the President’s leave — in the decisive style which has now become so familiar to our people – ‘Let it be so called.’ May we not hope that millions of our people will, on Nov. 26, be found uniting in this National Psalm of Thanksgiving, and that ‘The President’s Hymn’ will be the household and the Temple song of that solemn and joyful day? It will help to join our hearts as citizens thus to blend our voices as worshippers; and the blessings of Union, Liberty and Peace will sooner descend on a people that can thus unite in its praise and hosannahs.”
“Give thanks, all ye people, give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluias of freedom, with joyful accord,
Let the east and the west, north and south roll along,
Sea, mountain and prairie, one thanksgiving song.”
The hymn did not take hold in the American mind, but Congress officially made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1870, although the fourth Thursday in November date was not designated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved up the date by a week late in the Depression in an attempt to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but it proved extremely unpopular. Congress passed a bill that officially designated the last Thursday in November as the date in October 1941, and Roosevelt signed it that December. It has been observed on that date ever since.
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