Thanksgiving, Lincoln, and FDR

I just wanted to wish all our readers a happy and blessed Thanksgiving day. This historical note from Wikipedia struck my interest: “Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular women’s journal of the 19th century . . . wrote editorials and lobbied ‘that the LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY OF NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people.'” Apparently pressure from her (and likely other activists) led Lincoln to “proclaim[] the last Thursday in November a ‘prayerful day of Thanksgiving.'” His proclamation of 1863 is powerful: “[I] 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.”

In this century, Franklin Roosevelt set the date of Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November in 1939, and that was approved by Congress in 1941. A few more thoughts on Roosevelt beneath the jump.

This Bill Moyers speech, on his father’s memories of FDR, is a fascinating look back in time–and forward:

When I was born [my father] was making two dollars a day working on the highway to Oklahoma City. He never made over $100 a week in the whole of his working life, and he made that only when he joined the union on the last job he held. He voted for Franklin Roosevelt in four straight elections, and he would have gone on voting for him until kingdom come if both had lived that long. I once asked him why, and he said, “Because the President’s my friend.” Now, my father never met FDR. No politician ever paid him much note, but he was sure he had a friend in the White House during the worst years of his life. When by pure chance I wound up working there many years later, and my parents came for a visit, my father wanted to see the Roosevelt Room. I don’t know quite how to explain it, except that my father knew who was on his side and who wasn’t, and for twelve years he had no doubt where FDR stood. The first time I remember him with tears in his eyes was when Roosevelt died. He had lost his friend.

We can’t revive the man and certainly we wouldn’t want to revisit the times, but we can rekindle the spirit. There are 37 million people in this country who are poor; there are 57 million who are near poor, making $20,000 to $40,000 a year–one divorce, one pink slip, one illness away from a free fall. That’s almost one-third of America still living on the edge. They need a friend in the White House. My father, with his fourth-grade education and two fingers with the missing tips from the mix-up at the cotton gin, got it when Roosevelt spoke. “I can’t talk like him,” he said, “but I sure do think like him.” My father might not have had the words for it, but he said amen when FDR talked about economic royalism. Sitting in front of our console radio, he got it when Roosevelt said that private power no less than public power can bring America to ruin in the absence of democratic controls.

Given the central importance of gratitude, it’s no surprise to me that our two greatest presidents had key roles in institutionalizing and sustaining the holiday.

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