Thanksgiving is a time to pause, reflect and be thankful. Unlike other holidays, it's not about the gifts, the giving or the getting, but about appreciation and gratitude.
This week, I have been reflecting on the many things for which I am thankful: family, friends, pets, home, church and school. But I am also thankful to be a citizen of the United States, and am thankful for the leaders that our country has had throughout our history: President George Washington, President Thomas Jefferson, President Abraham Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Ronald Reagan, to name just a few.
It's easy to forget, in our own personal times of trial, that we, the American people, have been through much greater trials before. But it's helpful to recall and be thankful for those who have come before us and led us through times of trial, to learn from them and gather strength and inspiration. That's why I wrote "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches that Every American Should Own."
This collection is a compilation of our nation's great documents and speeches. As each one is introduced, its history, landscape and impact are presented so the reader views the events within a framework. This collection starts with the speech by Patrick Henry that coined the now famous line, "Give me liberty or give me death." It includes seven pieces from the founding of our nation and four from the Civil War. The most recent piece is President George W. Bush's speech from the well of the House of Representatives after the attack of Sept. 11.
The selections have common themes: faith, perseverance and hope.
My favorite selection is President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address. Lincoln's slogan for his second presidential race, in 1864, was, "No peace without victory." A former Union general, George McClellan, ran against him, calling for immediate peace. While Lincoln wanted peace, he knew that to save the Union he had to have victory first. News that Atlanta had fallen to Gen. William Sherman on Sept. 3 provided a surge for Lincoln's campaign and resulted in the prevailing belief that the war could be won.
Two months later, the voters elected Lincoln to a second term. Biographer Ronald White Jr. wrote, "They believe in him."
The president issued the Emancipation Proclamation after asking for a sign from God. The sign he was seeking, he believed, was the Union Army's victory at Antietam. By the time of his second inaugural, Lincoln understood that he was an instrument in a larger contest to be determined by God. This belief that God was in charge of the outcome was echoed throughout his second inaugural address.
"Lincoln's second inaugural was held on March 4, 1865, on the east side of the Capitol," I wrote in "The Essential American." "The dome that had been half complete with a crane sticking out of the top at the time of the first inaugural was finished. The Union Army had been victorious in recent battles, and the outcome was all but determined. Slaves had been freed, and the Capitol was surrounded by the biggest crowd to date, with half of them reported as 'persons of color.'
"The morning was overcast with light rain. After Lincoln was introduced and welcomed with thunderous applause, the clouds broke and the sun came out as he began to speak."
In the 701 words of his second inaugural, Lincoln refers to God, prayer or the Bible 15 times. While his first inaugural laid out the ramifications of secession, his second was a plea for moving past the conflict into reconciliation.
He used repetition and poetry. He expressed hope, but made no predictions.
He reminded his audience that, in an attempt to avoid war four years earlier, "one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
He illustrated the heart-wrenching reality of families, friends and communities split and torn by the war. "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God," Lincoln said. Both sides believed they were in the right, "and each invokes His aid against the other."
He concluded with a plea for reconciliation, "with malice toward none; with charity for all." And he asked that we work together as a nation to make peace and heal one another.
As we give thanks this week, I am thankful for our great leaders.
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