Done at the City of Washington

Wild turkeyThere are many wild turkeys in central Pennsylvania. I’ve seen them in flocks in fields, a couple of times one has flown low across the road, and more than once I’ve been in a car that had to break while one or two of these forest dwellers strutted regally across the road.

Wild turkeys look nothing like the genetically distorted birds who fill our Thanksgiving tables, birds that have lost their survival skills in favor of yumminess. Some people don’t have turkey for Thanksgiving, a type of diet they must have learned at Communist Youth Camp, as far as most Americans are concerned. Along with roasted (or sometimes deep-fried) turkey, several carbohydrate menu items are required to avoid suspicion of anti-American activity: mashed potatoes, stuffing or dressing, and sweet potatoes, graced with small marshmallows.

Personally, I don’t think you can have too many carbohydrates, but I also love vegetables, which often seem to be treated at Thanksgiving as optional bits of table color. This evening when I go to a friend’s house for dinner, I will take two dishes, one of collards cooked in a Brazilian style, sauteed with garlic, and a second dish of roasted turnips flavored with ginger, cumin, and thyme.

Maybe you think that Thanksgiving happens every year because it’s an American tradition and it’s just what we do. And you’re right if you think so. Nevertheless, one of our traditions, which most people are probably not even aware of, is that the president officially declares Thanksgiving every year, as if it would not otherwise happen.

Since Lincoln began this tradition on October 3, 1863, every president has declared Thanksgiving every year. The history of Thanksgiving is outside my scope here, but I want to look at the first proclamation by Lincoln, actually written by Secretary of State William Seward. (If you are interested, you can read the proclamation that Barack Obama put out a week ago, the official declaration of Thanksgiving for 2011).

Notice the date of Lincoln’s proclamation. You can see that it was in the middle of the Civil War, but you’d need to be more of a specialist to know that it occurred exactly three months after the battle of Gettysburg, not so far from where I’m sitting here in Pennsylvania. So in the middle of a terrible war, possibly the first modern industrial war, just after a massive battle with enormous losses on both sides, Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving.

His purpose in proclaiming Thanksgiving, which had long been a New England tradition (i.e. Pilgrims and all), was to try one more way to unite the country, and of course we know that an important reason to Lincoln in conducting the war was to preserve the Union. If people were to accept the idea of Thanksgiving and actually celebrate it on the Thursday in question, the proclamation would have to find rhetorical appeals that would connect with the audience.

Given the cataclysmic nature of the war, there would have been little credibility if the proclamation did not mention it, and it does so frequently. It begins more positively, however, and the first sentence reads “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” The second sentence alludes to the “ever watchful providence of Almighty God”. It is not until the third sentence that we find the phrase “a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity”. References to the war include the phrases “in the theater of military conflict”, “the advancing armies and navies of the Union” (notice that they are advancing), and “notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield”.

There is probably a more indirect reference to the war in a phrase that says God is “dealing with us in anger for our sins”. This phrase is part of  a consistent pattern throughout the proclamation. Many members of the audience would have felt a reverence for religion, and the proclamation is replete with such references that would have connected with the audience, reading at times as if it were a religious document, starting with the second sentence I mentioned above.

The very concept of the proclamation, in fact, at least as it is written, is not about simply being thankful, but about giving thanks to God. Some of the religious phrases include “the gracious gifts of the Most High God”, “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in Heaven”, “the Almighty Hand”, and “the Divine purposes”.

In addition to connecting with the audience’s concern for the war and reflecting their religious belief, a third type of rhetorical appeal in the proclamation consists of statements as to what to be thankful for. The first sentence begins such an appeal, with “fruitful fields and healthful skies”. Among other blessings for which Americans were asked to be grateful in 1863 were interesting recognitions of historical circumstances, such as the fact that “the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements”. The proclamation also states that “the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly”.

The last sentence of the proclamation, basically giving the date, established two rhetorical practices followed by the proclamations made by later presidents. The sentence begins “Done at the city of Washington”, a wording that was used with only a few exceptions until Lyndon Johnson was president, and it has not been used since.

The other, more meaningful, rhetorical practice, is probably a reflection of Lincoln’s concern with saving the Union. The last sentence not only gives the date of the proclamation, but it ends with stating how many years the United States has existed: “and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.” Every proclamation since then has continued that practice.

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Done at the village of Boalsburg, in the year of our residence the fifth.

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