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By Jay Cost

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Today, Let Us Give Thanks for Our Union

Amidst a monumental struggle for the preservation of the American Union, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the final Thursday of November, 1863 to be a day of Thanksgiving. He declared:

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...

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.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. 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...

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

That Americans in 1863 would give thanks to God for all His blessings just months after the horrors of Chancellorsville, Gettsyburg, and Chickamauga is a testament to the great faith of this great people.

In the midst of so much political division, consumed as we are today by sharp disagreements over health care, the economy, and the environment - It is easy to forget what binds us together: the simple and true fact that all of us - Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blue states and red states - are so privileged to live together in the United States of America. Today is a day to put aside our differences, to praise God for the blessings of this American Union, and to remember with gratitude those Americans who labored to bring it into being and who saved it from the malevolent forces of secession and slavery.

What would our lives be like without the Union? The unhappy times of the 1780s give us a hint. That was an age when foreign powers played state governments off one another, when no state had the power or authority to stabilize the economy, when the territorial integrity of our nation was under threat, when it appeared as though civil unrest would destroy America's experiment in self-government shortly after it had begun. Statesmen like George Washington, James Madison, John Jay and others recognized that for America to survive, the Union had to be strengthened beyond the measly provisions of the Articles of Confederation. And so, fifty-five men gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 with the purpose of forming "a more perfect union," one that would "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Historians have called the fruits of their labor the "Miracle at Philadelphia." And what a miracle it was! The Framers drafted an ingenious document that bonded the 13 diverse, far-flung states together in a Union strong enough to secure the blessings of liberty without threatening liberty itself.

In the decades that followed, it became clear that slavery posed a grave threat to this Union. As the divide between North and South grew wider, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Statesman for the Union," offered a Great Compromise in 1850. During the debate over this consequential measure came the most eloquent defense of the American Union any person has ever offered. On March 7, 1850 Daniel Webster of Massachusetts rose to address his country thusly:

Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . .I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. "Hear me for my cause."...

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe...

And now, Mr. President, instead of speaking of the possibility or utility of secession, instead of dwelling in those caverns of darkness, instead of groping with those ideas so full of all that is horrid and horrible, let us come out into the light of day; let us enjoy the fresh air of Liberty and Union; let us cherish those hopes which belong to us; let us devote ourselves to those great objects that are fit for our consideration and action; let us raise our conceptions to the magnitude and the importance of the duties that devolve upon us; let our comprehension be as broad as the country for which we act, our asperations as high as its certain destiny...

As it happened, the Compromise of 1850 only postponed what William Seward would term "the irrepressible conflict." Shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 - South Carolina seceded from the Union, perceiving that the advocates of slavery were now to be in the minority forever. Other states followed, and the country would soon be consumed by a horrific conflict in which more than 600,000 Americans would perish.

It would have been easy for President Lincoln to lose focus amidst the unprecedented death, devastation, and horror that was the Civil War. Yet he never did. As a lawyer in Springfield, he had followed the debates in 1850 closely, and he arrived in Washington determined to carry on the noble work of Clay and Webster: the preservation of the Union at all costs. Like those great statesmen, Lincoln understood that there was no such thing as "peaceable secession." A division between the states would eventually endanger all Americans - North and South. This was unacceptable. The Union had to be saved.

Lincoln also knew that the survival of the Union ultimately hinged upon the question of slavery. Back in Illinois in 1858, he stated:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.

Lincoln had campaigned for office on a platform of keeping slavery out of federal territories - and in his first inaugural address he averred that he had no intention to abolish it in the Southern states. Yet by 1862, with the bloody toll of that dreadful war increasing every day, the President had come to believe that this existential threat to the Union had to be eliminated once and for all. The war must not only be won to preserve the Union, but to perfect it. And so, on January 1, 1863, the President proclaimed:

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion...do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

With his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln made clear his intention that the United States would become all free - that from so much death, "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth in freedom." Less than three years after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution would abolish slavery forever. Later, the 14th Amendment would ensure that all Americans have the full rights that citizenship entails, and the 15th Amendment would secure the right of all men to vote. Future generations of Americans could thus enjoy the fresh air of Liberty and Union, as Daniel Webster said.

Tragically, Abraham Lincoln would not live to see his vision of a more perfect Union enshrined in the Constitution.

Four American presidents have been murdered while in office. Yet only one has been martyred for the cause of the American Union. Abraham Lincoln. Like the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who perished during those horrible years of Civil War, he sacrificed his own life not only to save the Union, but to strengthen it. And indeed, Lincoln's heroic efforts ensured that the notions of secession and slavery were placed on the ash heap of history, where they rightly belong. None of us need worry that the Union will come under such a threat ever again; all of us are committed to the principle that government of the people, for the people, by the people shall never perish from the earth. For that, we owe a debt of gratitude to the sacrifices of Abraham Lincoln and the soldiers who lost their lives while under his command.

So today, in the year of our Lord two thousand and nine, and of the independence of the United States the two hundred thirty-fourth, it is altogether fitting and proper that we give thanks to the Almighty for this American Union, and those whom He has guided over the centuries to secure its blessings for us. Let's give thanks for the equanimity of George Washington, for the persuasive pen of Thomas Jefferson, for the keen mind of James Madison, for the eloquence of Daniel Webster, for the political craftsmanship of Henry Clay, and for the sacrifice of Abraham Lincoln, who gave the last full measure of devotion to preserve, protect, and defend this Union against the greatest threat it has ever faced.

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-Jay Cost