Only 16 days after Americans vote in one of the most uncivil of presidential elections, they will gather in their homes for one of the most civil of holidays – Thanksgiving. Will any lingering rancor between family and friends over this year’s campaign cease before the turkey is sliced?
More to the point, will this autumn ritual of gratitude, grace, and forgiveness help reconcile a country that itself has been carved up by the cut-and-parry of the 2016 campaign?
Much depends on the post-election words of the losing candidate. One good example of a magnanimous call for unity after a tough campaign was John Kerry’s concession speech in 2004. “In an American election, there are no losers, because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning we all wake up as Americans,” he said.
Thanksgiving has sometimes arrived soon after the United States faced a crisis and a need for healing. In 2001, with the 9/11 attacks still fresh in mind, Americans were ready for a collective expression of gratitude. By late 2005, they had become so divided over the Iraq War that the holiday served as a welcome moment of introspection. In late 2008, the economy was tanking, driving Americans to be thankful for what they had.
Before Abraham Lincoln turned Thanksgiving into a regular national event, presidents and governors occasionally called for a special day to express gratitude to God. In 1789, George Washington asked Americans to give thanks “to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions ....”
In 1863, Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation during the darkest period of the Civil War was a call to love one’s enemies. He asked that God’s “gracious gifts” be “acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
Giving thanks, wrote G. K. Chesterton, is “the highest form of thought.” It requires humility and appreciation, which can help create consensus and harmony. This Thanksgiving, Americans must use the holiday to take account of what was good about this year, even in the presidential campaign. A holiday of civility can undo any incivility of the election.