Thomas Nast’s Thanksgiving Vision of American Identity

It comes not from common blood but from common conviction.

Thomas Nast's "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner"
Corbis via Getty

Nativism has a long history in the United States, and it remains with us still. The 19th-century southern politician John C. Calhoun argued without embarrassment that “all men are created equal” was not meant literally, and that America was a country of and for white men. Today, fearmongering about immigrants, attacks on the Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright citizenship, and sly verbal nods to white nationalism—all part of the president’s rhetorical menu—suggest a conviction that America is an ethnic-based nation; that some people are real Americans and others are, by their nature, alien.

But there is another concept of the American people, the one championed by Abraham Lincoln: that America is no mere ethno-state but a new nation, whose identity comes not from common blood but from common conviction. See how Lincoln put it in 1858, in a speech that praises the “old men” of 1776 and their deeds, then turns to immigration:

“We have … among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men. … If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find that they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that these old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel … that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”  

What a profound and radical idea: that one becomes American by accepting the American creed.

In that spirit, let us consider Thomas Nast’s once-famous, now-obscure drawing “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” a metaphoric vision of Lincoln’s America published by Harper’s Weekly just before Thanksgiving 1869.

In the drawing, Uncle Sam is carving the turkey; opposite him sits Lady Columbia; and at the abundant table are members of the American nation, men, women, and children from all corners of the globe in good spirits and affable conversation. The table centerpiece proclaims “self government” and “universal suffrage”; on the wall hangs a banner proclaiming the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment on voting rights and a picture of Castle Garden, the nation’s great immigration receiving point before Ellis Island; the captions below read “Free, Equal” and “Come One Come All.”

What confidence! What a contrast between Nast’s image and the dark defensiveness of our times. “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” is not a politically correct affectation; it is an expression of civic patriotism, a vision of America as truly “Novus ordo seclorum”—a “new order of the ages”—as is written on the Great Seal of the United States. (And, yes, even a nation based on common conviction can have and enforce immigration laws and maintain a regulated border; it would be nice to do so with a feeling of confidence, not fear.)

Nast’s America, Lincoln’s America, was not the final word or the end of American history. Reconstruction, at its height in 1869, would fail; Jim Crow segregation would replace it; nativism would rise again and again. But Americans have always returned to the higher way of Lincoln because his civic patriotism, Nast’s patriotism, is the patriotism that makes America the exceptional nation. Americans—then led by the party of Lincoln—knew this in Nast’s time and will recall it in ours.

Not for nothing did Nast choose Thanksgiving to roll out his American vision: This holiday is at once particular to the United States and universal, open to all in this country who partake of it. It recalls a particular historical event—the Pilgrim colony—and by extension a past common to all Americans whose ancestors arrived on these shores, no matter how they arrived, seeking refuge, freedom, and the chance at a better life amid the abundance and generosity offered by Uncle Sam and Lady Columbia.

Happy Thanksgiving.