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Carter: A Thanksgiving message for Obama’s America

It’s a difficult Thanksgiving season. The nation is deeply divided, facing serious threats abroad and an uncertain economy at home. An unpopular war drags on, and the controversial incumbent president, after a bitter and divisive campaign, has just won re-election with barely 50 percent of the popular vote.

Welcome to November 1812. The war against the British is going badly. President James Madison, after a landslide victory in 1808, almost lost this time around. The citizens of a worried nation, in between the name-calling and rancor, nervously ask one another what exactly there is to be thankful for. Is it possible that the solutions of their fraught age could hold lessons for ours?

To find out, let us poke our heads inside the Congregational Church in Dunbarton, N.H., where the longtime pastor, a Dartmouth graduate named Walter Harris, is delivering his annual Thanksgiving message. Harris, nicknamed “the sledgehammer,” is a noted contrarian who opposes, for example, the town tax that pays his salary. His remarkable sermon for Thanksgiving 1812 could have been delivered today.

Harris begins by announcing to his flock that although it is Thanksgiving, he plans to “enumerate some of the national evils under which we labor.”

One the evils Harris enumerates is what nowadays is called incivility. “Men of the same neighborhood have become the most virulent enemies to one another; they cannot speak peaceably to one another,” he says. “These divisions forebode approaching ruin.”

Closely related is the problem we have come to call partisan gridlock: “The parties in our country, which are pulling in different directions, are so nearly balanced, that our real strength, to accomplish any important end, has become very small.”

Harris urges that Americans try to heal their “alarming divisions” in part by putting an end to “all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speaking, and malice.”

Yet these nasty and divisive debates, Harris insists, are only a symptom. The greater problem is partisanship itself: “Let all the wise and good unitedly disapprove and condemn the bitter and provoking language of rash party-men.” The solution is obvious: “This party-business must be done away with, or the nation must be ruined.”

That’s basically where Harris ends. The greatest evil confronting the country turns out to be the political parties.

Can we reject “the bitter and provoking language” of the worst partisans without giving up on the idea of political parties or a vigorous debate – or democracy itself? That was the challenge in Harris’s era, and 200 Novembers later, remains the challenge in ours. His America survived its divisions and fears and went on to thrive – a reason that we today should face our worrisome world in optimism. And as we chew over our problems, let’s also spend the holiday season following Harris’s suggestion that we take the time, no matter what we may be suffering, to count our blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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