The country was in the midst of a horrific war with the outcome still very much in doubt. Yet the president found that he and his fellow citizens still had much to be grateful for, and thus declared the last Thursday in November of 1863 an official day of Thanksgiving.
"In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity ... order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict," Abraham Lincoln stated in his message declaring "a national day of Thanksgiving."
His words are particularly apt 147 years later when Americans are again at war and there is uncertainty and division over everything from the state of the economy to the threat of terrorist attacks and the invasive airport security measures that come from it.
While the war in Iraq appears to be winding down, it continues to rage in Afghanistan, so far at a cost of more than 1,400 American lives.
For their loved ones left behind, this Thanksgiving will be shrouded by the memory of the loss. And for those with family still serving overseas, this day, like every other day, is bound to be tinged with worry about their safety, and interrupted by a prayer or two for their safe return. For others, who are still looking for work even though the recession has statistically ended, there are continuing worries about what the new year will bring in terms of their current lifestyles and their futures.
Still, the rite of getting together and sharing a meal, passed down to us from the Pilgrims who first settled this region in 1620, and formalized by Lincoln's proclamation, should give us comfort even in the worst of times.
It's the reason millions of Americans endure the stress of traveling to connect with friends and family again — because the value of those connections makes economic worries a bit less pressing.
And, in spite of stressful times, we have much to be thankful for. This is still "the home of the brave," where volunteers put their lives at risk so that others might enjoy the freedoms Americans take for granted.
Here in Haverhill, in spite of crushing fiscal challenges, the city has been able to remain not just solvent, but relatively stable. While it still struggles with the problems of urban living, its people retain a fierce sense of community pride. It has compelling natural assets — woodlands and a river running through it that is now the focus of restoration efforts.
Those things are worth a celebration of thanksgiving.
Our community spirit comes shining through. We are a generous people — on Thanksgiving Day, many will be devoting hours at church halls, senior centers and homeless shelters in an effort to make sure that no one goes hungry or is without companionship.
Despite the competition from a world economy, our standard of living locally and nationally is among the best on the globe. It's the reason this country remains a beacon for those from abroad who desire a better life for themselves and their families, and why New England is such a desirable place to live.
In declaring this "day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens," Lincoln remained mindful of the terrible price that had already been paid to keep his country united and end the scourge of slavery.
While urging thankfulness by his countrymen, he added that, "while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence ... 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, tranquility and Union."
We would all do well to embrace that sentiment, along with these poetic thoughts from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Thanksgiving Prayer:
For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.