Tag Archives: William Seward

The 150th “official” Thanksgiving

Americans had been celebrating “thanksgivings” in one form or another for a long time before the Civil War, but it wasn’t until Lincoln’s presidency that the holiday acquired a sort of official seal of approval and a standardized date, at least on the national level.

In response to pleas from editor Sarah Josepha Hale (who had been petitioning for such a national holiday for years), on October 3, 1863 Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day.  The country followed this practice until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted an earlier date to accommodate a longer holiday shopping season.  Congress eventually settled on the fourth Thursday in November.

Lincoln’s October 1863 proclamation helped transform Thanksgiving from a holiday limited to certain states and practiced on various days into a genuinely national custom.  Interestingly, Lincoln probably didn’t write it himself; one of his secretaries credited it to William H. Seward.

We’ve featured the proclamation on this blog before, but since this year marks the sesquicentennial of Thanksgiving as an “official” United States holiday, it seems appropriate to post the text again.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is 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. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and 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 testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth. ABRAHAM LINCOLN

By the President:

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

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Seward biographer on Hollywood fact and fiction

Walter Stahr, author of a new biography of William H. Seward, shares his thoughts on Spielberg’s Lincoln at the Wall Street Journal‘s website.

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Walter Stahr on William Seward

The author of a new biography of Lincoln’s rival-turned-cabinet-member spoke to NPR about the relationship between the two men.

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Nominating Lincoln

By Michael Lynch

If there is any uncertainty surrounding this week’s Republican National Convention, it involves the threat of severe weather rather than the outcome.  Mitt Romney’s nomination is essentially a foregone conclusion.  Party conventions used to be more suspenseful, as was the case in 1860 when the Republicans put forth their second candidate for the presidency.

Presidential nominating conventions of this sort, while not exactly novel, were nonetheless a fairly recent phenomenon at that time.  Before the 1830’s, congressional party caucuses picked presidential candidates.  The nominating convention was an innovation (and possibly the only lasting historical contribution) of the Anti-Masonic Party, which met to select William Wirt for the election of 1832, and other parties took up the practice not long afterward.  Nineteenth-century conventions were consequential affairs, contingent on wheeling and dealing among delegates rather than ordained by the results of primaries.  These meetings were thus not the coronation ceremonies they would eventually become, but crucibles of destiny that could make or break a man’s political career.

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The Republican National Convention of 1860, which took place in a Chicago structure called the Wigwam (a two-story, wooden meeting hall with a capacity of about 10,000 people) was particularly momentous, because it selected the party’s first successful candidate for the White House and the man who presided over the worst crisis in the nation’s history.   How did a man like Abraham Lincoln, who had enjoyed success as a legislator in his home state but whose national record was rather undistinguished, become his party’s pick for the highest office in America?

Problems with the other contenders helped him along.  New York’s William Seward, the front-runner, had earned for himself a reputation for radicalism, while his attempts to conciliate moderates in the run-up to the convention served only to alienate those radicals who had supported him earlier.  Simon Cameron had served in the Senate, but proved willing to bow out in exchange for a cabinet post.  Salmon P. Chase was a former Democrat whose opposition to tariffs made him distasteful to many of the ex-Whigs who had built the Republican Party in the 1850’s.  Edward Bates had ties to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and had therefore alienated himself from the German voters courted by the Republicans.  (Each of these men would end up in the cabinet of the eventual nominee.)

That left Lincoln, who had three things working in his favor.  He seemed moderate enough to appeal to a large number of voters.  He had a body of speeches, debates, and published remarks which proved that he had a mind to reckon with.  And he had allies at the Wigwam who knew how to work the delegates.  Lincoln came in second to Seward on the convention’s first ballot; on the third, he captured the nomination, thanks to able maneuvering by his friend David Davis and support from a group of Ohio delegates at a crucial point.

This combination of handicapped Republican competitors, adroit supporters, and a moderate record, along with a sectionally fractured Democratic opposition, sent Lincoln to Washington, D.C.  The election of this ostensibly moderate westerner drove the Deep South out of the Union.  Ironically, the exigencies of the ensuing war caused this man, nominated for office because his rivals were too radical, to undertake measures that were downright revolutionary.  All of it was contingent on what happened in Chicago, in an age when presidential nominating conventions offered up more uncertainty and excitement than they do now.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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David Strathairn on Seward

Acclaimed actor David Strathairn plays Secretary of State William Seward in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film Lincoln.  He recently spoke to the newspaper in Seward’s hometown of Auburn, NY about the role and his preparation for it; you can read the first part of the interview by clicking here.

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