A sermon preached 115 years ago on Thanksgiving Day voiced a protest against a new era in American foreign policy that was launched by the Spanish American War of 1898. Pastor Henry Van Dyke of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City took the occasion of this annual day of prayer to question the US acquisition of the Philippines, which before the naval war had been a colony of Spain. While not criticizing the US decision to intervene in the Cuban revolt against Spanish rule, Van Dyke saw the US assumption of territory in the China Sea as an “abandonment of the American ideal of national growth for the European ideal of colonial conquest.” Van Dyke warned that in becoming an imperial power, the US would lose its commitment to republican principles. Read “The American Birthright and the Philippine Pottage.”
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Abraham Lincoln called for national days of Thanksgiving more than once during the Civil War. On April 10, 1862, after the union victory at Shiloh and the fall of the Confederate fortress at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River, Lincoln called for sabbath-day thanksgiving observances; and following the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he called for a national day of “Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer” to be observed on August 6, 1863. On both occasions he emphasized the hope that these partial victories gave: “that the Union of these States will be maintained, their constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored” while also calling for prayers of intercession for those who had suffered during the war and for prayers of repentance—a tacit acknowledgement that the conflict was in some sense due to a sin committed by the nation as a whole.
But when Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in November of that year, he did so in a way that recalled Washington’s similar proclamation in 1789. He issued the proclamation on October 3rd, as Washington had, and like Washington he chose the fourth Thursday of November for the celebration. And, like Washington, whose pointed to the “tranquillity, union, and plenty” the nation had enjoyed since the conclusion of the Revolution, Lincoln emphasized the blessings the nation had enjoyed in the midst of civil war: peace with foreign powers, maintenance of civil order away from the battlefield, and the continuance of farming and industry. As long and wearying as the war had proven to be, it had not undermined the fundamental character and purposes of Americans, and the nation seemed “permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.” As Washington had called for thanksgiving that an unprecedented attempt to establish republican government had actually succeeded, now Lincoln asked Americans to thank the divine power that seemed willing to allow the republic to continue, even while punishing it with a costly civil war.
We think of our national celebration of Thanksgiving as rooted in the harvest feast of seventeenth century Pilgrim settlers. But as an official government holiday, the celebration was inaugurated by George Washington, following a resolution of Congress, in 1789. Though he issued the proclamation on October 3, he set the date of the celebration for the fourth Thursday in November, a tradition we follow today.
Washington notes in the beginning of the Proclamation that “both Houses of Congress have by their Joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’” In fact, Congress was then an almost brand-new institution, having convened for the first time the previous March. The new Constitution had not become the working blueprint of our government until late in July 1788, by which time the necessary eleven of the original thirteen states had ratified that document. Hence in issuing the Proclamation, Washington was no doubt expressing a sense of relief and jubilation that the young nation’s extraordinary process of inventing a republican form of government had actually succeeded. The new government united regions with differing economic interests, led by statesmen with sharply different views of what a republic would require for its survival.
“Historians tell us that the importance of the 1800 election is that it’s the first peaceful exchange of power from one party to another. Yes, that is extremely important. Here is another thing that’s important. What other country prior to the United States is informed that its government doesn’t work, sits for four months in convention, comes back for an entire year and debates and debates, and not a drop of blood was spilled?”
Something else to think about as we count our blessings next week.
FlackCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, has put together a series of mock political campaign ads for the 1864 presidential election pitting the incumbent President Abraham Lincoln against General George B. McClellan. Developed with the assistance of veteran campaign advertising strategists from the 2004 campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush, the ads and a series of accompanying classroom lesson plans are designed to help teacher show the role of mass media advertising in modern campaigns and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to separate fact from distortion.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has released its schedule of weeklong seminars for the summer of 2014. The seminars are open to K-12 teachers from Gilder Lehrman affiliate schoosl, school librarians, museum educators, and National Park Service interpreters.
For teachers at schools not currently affiliated with the Institute, you will have the opportunity to apply for affiliation with your application for the seminars. Affiliation provides a number of benefits for your school’s teachers and students, including professional development opportunities, curricular resources, and opportunities to recognize outstanding history students.
Today, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, it is difficult to conceive that the most often memorized political speech from our history was not immediately hailed as a masterful summary of American ideals. Yet, as Chris Pascarella blogged on November 15, a retraction published by the central Pennsylvania newspaper, The Patriot and Union, abashedly admits that their editors in 1863 called the oration “silly remarks.”
One of the fallen soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg (Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan. Library of Congress)
A related feature story quotes Lincoln scholar Martin P. Johnson, who speculates that the silly remarks mentioned were those Lincoln made the night before, upon arrival in Gettysburg, in response to a serenade played below his hotel room. The editors may have deliberately conflated the two speeches, wanting to undermine Lincoln’s rhetorical achievement; they make clear in their commentary that what they most object to is Lincoln’s effort to express the high purpose of what they called a war fought “to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.” The Patriot and Union editors also held a grudge against Lincoln, having been arrested and charged with sedition the year before because of a handbill printed on their presses that the administration feared could spark a race riot. But they were not the only paper to criticize the speech; you can read here the editorial in a Democratic Chicago paper that denounces Lincoln for not honoring the Confederate dead equally with the Union soldiers slain in the battle. These contemporary reactions, so odd to the eyes of readers 150 years later, remind us that in his determination to push through emancipation, Lincoln fought against widespread criticism and fear of the new social order that freeing the slaves would bring about.
A question for etymologists out there: the Chicago Times editorial uses the word “Dawdleism” to describe Lincoln’s funeral oratory. Does anyone know what the word meant at the time? Since Lincoln certainly didn’t lag in stating his point, we wondered if this was a reference to the months that elapsed between the battle and the cemetery dedication? Or is “Dawdle” a character in 19th century literature who emphasized partisan goals when speaking on solemn occasions—as the editorial accuses Lincoln of doing? We can’t find the name in character lists for Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, or Sir Walter Scott. If you have a clue, let us know!
There is no better way to commemorate tomorrow’s 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address than by reading and reflecting on the words and ideas of Abraham Lincoln.
Last weekend, the Ashbrook Center brought 18 social studies teachers to Springfield, Illinois to do just that. Together, we talked about the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Participants read and discussed some of Lincoln’s most famous writings, including his “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, IL,” his “Eulogy of Henry Clay,” his “House Divided Speech,” his First and Second Inaugural Addresses, and, of course, the Gettysburg Address. Our discussion leader for the weekend was Prof. Lucas Morel (Washington and Lee University). In addition to our discussions, we visited the Lincoln family’s Springfield home, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
For those interested in exploring the legacy of Abraham Lincoln on their own, the Ashbrook Center has many resources. View our extensive library of documents by and about Lincoln here. To hear Prof. Morel lecture about the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, click here. Finally, to register for our upcoming series of teacher webinars on the 50 Core Documents – which include Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural – click here.
In 1863, the editors of the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot & Union newspaper published what became a notorious opinion of President Lincoln’s remarks of that November 19th, as he dedicated the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The editors Lincoln’s remarks “silly” and suggested “that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
Since that time, generations of American students have memorized Lincoln’s succinct and powerful words and the glimpse they provide of the nature and meaning of freedom and equality in America. As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, the paper’s modern editors have published a retraction of that editorial on November 14, 2013, calling their predecessors’ commentary “…a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring….”
Lincoln in November, 1863; photograph by Alexander Gardiner (Library of Congress)
One hundred fifty years ago this fall, advance planning for the reconstruction of the rebelling Southern states began. In the fall of 1863, after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Congressmen assumed the war would soon end. President Lincoln had regarded the secession of southern states from the union as logical contradiction of their original binding ratification of the Constitution and maintained that the Civil War was fought primarily to prevent the union’s dissolution. So it should perhaps not be surprising that Lincoln proposed a means of readmitting states when only a small minority of their constituents—10 %—voted to reestablish republican governments that acknowledged the authority of the Constitution. Those forming these governments must swear allegiance to the Union and also swear their acceptance of acts of Congress and Presidential proclamations regarding slavery—that is, the reentering states must accept emancipation. To his non-abolitionist critics, Lincoln had justified emancipation as a war measure; now he stated that to abandon the decision to free the slaves “would be not only to relinquish a lever of power, but would also be a cruel and an astounding breach of faith.” Continue reading →
Today is Veteran’s Day, a day in which the nation commemorates and honors the efforts and sacrifices made by American servicemen and service women, past and present.
In 1954, Congress changed the name of the November 11th Armistice Day holiday to Veterans Day, rededicating the day to the memory of the service personnel of all wars of the United States. In a proclamation published in the Federal Register, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issues an official proclamation directing citizens and the federal government to observe the day and suggesting that, “…all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to to join hands in the common purpose.”
On Saturday, November 2, the Ashbrook Center hosted Professors Chris Burkett (Ashland University), Peter Schramm (Ashland University) and Gordon Lloyd (Pepperdine University) for a webinar conversation on the topic “Reflection and Choice versus Accident and Force: the Making of the Constitution“. This was the third in Ashbrook’s series of nine monthly webinars during the 2013-14 school year on America’s 50 Core Documents. If you weren’t able to join us, please view the video!
To register for future webinars, or to take a series of them for graduate credit, click here.
As a result of the War with Mexico, the United States acquired a large area of western land, and at once controversy arose over whether the states organized in these territories would enter the union as “freesoil” or slave-holding. Southern states were anxious to maintain the equivalence between free and slave states and territories that obtained after the admission of the Oregon Territory, in which slavery was prohibited. But California was applying for admission as a free state, and the New Mexico and Utah territories were yet to be organized. Southerners began to talk of a Northern intent to restrict slavery and eventually abolish it; some went so far as to threaten secession. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, as he had done in 1820, fashioned a compromise; he offered a number of resolutions designed to appease both sides while arranging for the admission of California as a state and setting terms for the organization of the other territories acquired from Mexico. While free states would now outnumber slave states, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed to stiffen existing requirements that slaves who had escaped to the north be returned to the south.
Joining Clay, another aged statesman who spoke out at this time to encourage compromise and denounce talk of secession was Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. His “Constitution and Union” speech covered wide ground. Continue reading →
Our friends at the Bill of Rights Institute have introduced a new documentary resource written by teachers for use in K-12 classrooms. Documents of Freedom: History, Government, & Economics through Primary Sources is designed to be used as a supplement (or even as a substitute) for traditional government, civics, and economics textbooks. Each lesson unit highlights key primary sources and is indexed to the standards of many states, the Common Core, and the College Board. Best of all, it works equally well across all platforms: Windows, Mac, tablets, smartphones, and other devices.
When Abraham Lincoln was invited in the fall of 1863 to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was not to give the main speech. That oration was delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts statesman, vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and the most famous orator of his day. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 without notes for over two hours, giving an example of the kind of ornate, learned, and transcendentalist rhetoric that was expected at such ceremonies.
The president used only 272 words in his dedication of the cemetery grounds, with most American newspapers taking little notice of the now famous speech. But the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln to say, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s spare, poetic, and biblical speech buried the old rhetorical style of Everett and set the standard for a new kind of speech, which is still the model for such solemn commemorative occasions. If all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, as Ernest Hemingway suggested, all modern American speeches come out of the Address.