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Thanks to Lincoln: Thanksgiving from a most unlikely source
Judge Layne Smith
It’s ironic that our annual celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday was started by a man of sorrows.
Born poor, lacking formal education, and suffering through the death of his mother at a tender age, no one expected much from Abraham Lincoln. He suffered from depression his entire life.
His appearance didn’t help either. Lincoln was unusually tall, thin and gawky. In addition to being “just plain ugly,” his voice was high-pitched and often sounded whiny.
Lincoln failed at business, struggled to pay bills and suffered the death of his one true love; he also had a mental breakdown and a long convalescence.
Lincoln’s wife battled her own mental health issues, and her instability weighed him down too. Yet Lincoln rose above these obstacles to become one of the preeminent trial lawyers of his day.
Lincoln was not a political superstar. Prior to 1860, he lost eight political elections and was never elected to a statewide office. When he was elected president, 11 southern states rebelled, and the civil war followed. Everyone grossly underestimated the man and his strength of character, and probably for good reason.
The civil war raged from April 12, 1861 through May 9, 1865. The Union had superior resources and the moral high ground, but Lincoln lacked an effective military leader to take the fight to the south. That changed on March 9, 1864, when he appointed Ulysses Grant as commander of the Union Army.
Consider this sobering statistic: many more Americans died or were wounded fighting the civil war than in any other American conflict. Lincoln tracked the cost in blood and wrote many letters of condolence to grieving parents, wives and children.
I’ve included two photographs of President Lincoln to demonstrate the impact that the stress of the war had on him.
The first picture was taken in 1861, after he had been elected president. The second picture was taken in 1865, after he had won a bitterly contested re-election campaign, and shortly before he was assassinated. During the intervening four years, Lincoln suffered through the deaths of over 600,000 soldiers and his beloved 11-year-old son, Willie. He literally aged decades in the span of 48 months.
Lesser men would have soured on life and become pessimists. Instead, he purposefully chose to be an optimist, despite all the pain and uncertainties he faced.
On Oct. 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation which established our nation’s annual celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday.
If Lincoln could be thankful in the midst of his troubles, so can we. If he could hold everything together for the equality of mankind and for good of our nation, so can we. This Thanksgiving let’s count our many blessings, pray for one another and heed President Lincoln’s warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).
J. Layne Smith is a Leon County Judge who speaks and writes about civics, law, and the administration of justice. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.