In late 1863, President Abraham Lincoln unwittingly launched what would soon become a cherished American tradition.
A well-wisher had sent a turkey to the White House for the first family’s holiday meal. When Lincoln’s son, Tad, begged his father to spare the bird’s life, the president — ever an indulgent parent — pulled out a piece of paper and wrote out a presidential pardon. Thus was a venerable presidential practice born.
But the mood was not light that fall. The Civil War, now in its third year, had torn at the nation’s fabric, creating bitter divisions not just between North and South, but also within the Union itself. In October, in an effort to inspire greater unity, Lincoln had declared the first-ever national Thanksgiving celebration, fixing the last Thursday of November for a day of reflection and prayer.
As non-controversial as Thanksgiving is today, you might imagine the proclamation met with universal acceptance. It did not.
Reflecting the sharp polarization in national politics, many Democrats and peace proponents refused to acknowledge the president’s proclamation of the new holiday, and some even denounced it as an attempt to impose a particular brand of New