In the midst of the American Civil War, on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decreed that the last Thursday of November would henceforth be "a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
The holiday had been celebrated unofficially since the 17th century and was made an official national holiday by President George Washington on October 3, 1789.
Interestingly, both men used this day of Thanksgiving to unite the nation.
In 1789, Washington decreed "Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being... That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks -- for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation... for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted." (By October 1789, 11 states had ratified the Constitution, including New York.)
Seventy-four years later, Lincoln asked the nation to give thanks for its blessings even in the midst of crushing war: new freedom (Emancipation), peace and order (after bloody draft riots in New York and elsewhere), and the abundance of the frontier (work began on the Trans-Continental Railroad that year).
He wrote, "It has seemed to me fit and proper that [the gracious gifts of the Most High God] 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."
For newcomers to America, who came in large numbers from the German states and Ireland during the mid-19th century, Thanksgiving provided a chance to give thanks for a new home, a new job, safety, freedom. Perhaps the new residents of 97 Orchard Street, constructed that year, were thankful for new housing. The holiday also provided an opportunity for all Americans (native or foreign born, Northern or Southern) to come together around a singular national holiday.
This Thomas Nast illustration from the November 20, 1869 issue of Harper's Weekly shows a number of different people sharing a turkey at the table of "self-government" and "universal suffrage." Nast was never particularly sympathetic towards immigrants, so this cartoon is most likely poking fun.
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.