by Adam J. Wehrley
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Preamble to the Declaration of Independence – 1776
This week mark’s the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, a day of gratitude in the wake of the bloodiest days of the Civil War.
The history of our nation has been an imperfect progression towards the singular ideal that human rights, human value, equality and liberty are not gifts granted by a king or ruling party to those who humbly submit to their will, but that the right to liberty, life and freedom of conscience is granted by God above, who created us all.
It is the progress of this ideal that has made our nation great, while it’s imperfect application has been our greatest shame. From the Mayflower Compact at Plymouth in 1620 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the war for independence, we struggled to establish the principle that the government of a nation exists to promote the safety and liberty of its citizens, not to serve an aristocracy or monarchy.
For over two centuries since the Declaration, forces within our nation have struggled over the extent to which those rights should be applied.
In the fall of 1863, Abraham Lincoln made two statements which forever changed the political philosophy of our nation, reverberations of these statements continue to resound 150 years later.
Throughout his political life, Lincoln was a great champion of re-establishing the self-evident truth of God’s endowment of rights as the central tenet of American political philosophy, asserting that the Declaration of Independence is the foundation on which the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are based.
While many states and localities had maintained Thanksgiving celebrations since the 1600s, it was on Oct. 3, 1863, that President Lincoln declared an annual Thanksgiving holiday be established, saying, “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.”
Despite the horrors of the Civil War which ravaged the country Lincoln said, “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.”
He knew, better than most today, the sins and failures of our nation, but President Lincoln recognized the progress of the ideal of liberty as a gift. He foretold that it would continue to spread. It has.
Four Score and Seven Years Ago
Between the establishment of Thanksgiving and its actual celebration, Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. Last Tuesday, Nov. 19, was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. It opens with, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The address concludes, “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
One hundred years and three days after Lincoln called the nation to be dedicated to increasing freedom, based on those who gave the “last full measure of devotion” to that cause, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In many ways Lincoln’s efforts reached their culmination in the wake of Kennedy’s death.
The century between the two assassinations saw victories and defeats for the cause of freedom. Suffrage was established for women and African Americans, but Jim Crow laws, segregation and other abuses curtailed liberty’s progress.
Too often the tree of liberty has been watered with the blood of our patriots, but the tree has grown. From humble beginnings, its seeds have sprouted beyond our shores.
With each knew generation, tyranny, oppression and hatred wear new faces and the root of liberty, the truth that we are each endowed with rights by our Creator, must likewise be nourished. Without this root, liberty will die. If we fail to recognize the source of our gifts and jealously guard liberty as sacred, the reign of freedom will fall.
That we have long been the spring from which this truth flows is our greatest blessing as Americans. That we continue to be, is my deepest prayer for our nation. It is for that honor and the fruit it bears for our families, neighbors and communities that we continue to give thanks.
Gratitude is not born from wealth and ease, it springs from knowing the price paid for liberty and that our lives, loved ones, joys and blessings are gifts.