Thanksgiving roots unite us: the Mayflower Compact and Lincoln’s proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln issued a thanksgiving proclamation in 1863.
President Abraham Lincoln issued a thanksgiving proclamation in 1863.

They had been at sea for more than two months, and by the time they reached landfall, the grip of winter was tightening. The following year, when spring finally arrived, only half of the 102 who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower were alive.

That would seem an inauspicious beginning, yet the story of this small band looms large in our history because their first act was to begin laying a foundation for self-government in the New World.

“We, whose names are underwritten ... covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick ... ,” they wrote in the document that became known as the Mayflower Compact. While still offshore aboard the Mayflower, the 41 signatories pledged to frame “just and equal Laws,” to which they promised “all due Submission and Obedience.”

With that, they foreshadowed the free republic that would take root a century and a half later. The formal signing of a document forged by consensus implies freedom of choice. Its language reminds us that members of the community — citizens — have rights and duties.

This time of year is a reminder of the seeds these Pilgrims planted.

(A version of this editorial first ran in 2001.)

Making of a holiday

The American custom of Thanksgiving dates from 1621, when the governor of Plymouth colony, William Bradford, invited members of a neighboring Indian tribe to a feast celebrating the harvest. The Pilgrims had landed the year before in what is now Massachusetts.

In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln revived the tradition and formally declared an annual holiday for the occasion.

Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November. In 1941, Congress changed the date to the fourth Thursday of that month. On this day, we look back to the roots of our American holiday.

The Mayflower Compact

“Agreement Between the Settlers at New Plymouth: 1620

“In the name of God, amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.”

(Forty-one signatures were affixed to the document.)

Lincoln’s 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 … 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 had 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. ...

“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. ...

“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.”

Oct. 3, 1863