From The New York Times, Editorial “Thanksgiving Scripture” by Lincoln Caplan, published Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 2010 – on my Grandfather, Wilbur Lucius Cross, Governor of Connecticut (1931-39) and his Thanksgiving Proclamations.
In 1936, with the Great Depression persisting, the governor of Connecticut issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation so inspiring that people in the state learned it by heart as if it were scripture. It was common then to memorize stirring speeches and other texts, but not public decrees. The proclamation’s message and 2010’s turmoil make this a very good year to re-read the document.
The governor was Wilbur Cross, and he wrote the proclamation himself. He was an esteemed Shakespeare scholar and had just retired from Yale after an impressive career as an English professor and luminary. At the age of 68 in 1930, by a tiny margin, he won an encore career in politics. His appeal as governor shows what we are missing today.
In his inaugural address, he spoke soberly about the drastic state of the state, calling for it to open its armories to the homeless. As a Democrat hemmed in by a Republican-dominated Legislature, Cross proved an adept leader. His most powerful tool was his rhetoric.
His first annual Thanksgiving Proclamation, in 1931, has been celebrated for conveying insights about worship, friendship, the beauty of nature, and gratitude for blessings received, all in one sentence.
By 1938, at the end of four two-year terms and a few weeks after he had been defeated for a fifth, his final proclamation gave thanks for “the increase of the season nearing now its close.”
The 1936 offering stands apart. Its lightness came partly from what it left out. There is no mention of the state’s disastrous floods that year, its labor strife or its citizens’ struggles to make ends meet. Everyone knew how bad things were. Lifting his gaze to the stars, the governor helped others rediscover their hopes and dreams.
“Time out of mind,” he began, “at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year.”
Where did this spirit come from? In his autobiography “Connecticut Yankee,” Cross explained. He recounted his adventures with an improbably wide range of people, including Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He translated the Gettysburg Address into Latin. The most instructive section is about his family and Connecticut childhood.
In the village of Gurleyville, near Hartford, his father farmed and ran a grist mill. The young Cross learned to communicate with his almost-deaf mother by silently mouthing each word.
He learned to read at a little schoolhouse where his parents had gone as well. As a boy born in 1862, he heard stories about America’s founding from a 90-something innkeeper born in 1778 — reading Governor Cross today, we are directly connected to the 18th century.
By the time he was 11, he was regularly left to manage his older brother’s general store. It was a haven for Civil War veterans who had fought for the Union at Shiloh and Antietam. Standing guard, they said, they had fraternized with the enemy, “swapping matches for tobacco, and smoking together, and hoping that the war would soon end.”
He grew from a boy proprietor of chickens, making good money selling eggs, to the promising winner of his high school’s declamation prize, and then to a citizen of Yale and beyond.
He was 80 when he finished the autobiography. He confessed that he had always believed in destiny, tracing his to his village roots and the community that tended them. His destiny led him to write his treasured proclamation.
In a period more trying than our own, Cross did for Connecticut what no leader seems able to do for America today. He buoyed hearts with reassuring words about shared blessings — “the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives.”