Food, football, parades, hunting, more food, a short nap. It’s Thanksgiving! You studied American history in school, right, so you probably know all about Thanksgiving and why we celebrate it when we do it. I thought so too. However, in my recent reading of the last few weeks, I learned some new stories. Here’s one of many I hadn’t heard before.
On October 3, 1789, George Washington issued the first-ever Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. 74 years and 15 presidents later, Abraham Lincoln became the second president to make such a proclamation.
With all the pressures of his presidency—the American Civil War raging—why did Abraham Lincoln feel it necessary to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation at all? His decision was ultimately the result of several letters Sarah Josepha Hale wrote to him earlier in the year. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought it might be fun, or at least enlightening, to learn about them.
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Sarah Josepha Buell was born in Newport, New Hampshire, in 1788 to a Revolutionary War veteran. In addition to the deep patriotism they instilled in her, Sarah’s parents believed in equal education for boys and girls. As it was rare for a girl to go to school at the time, Sarah was homeschooled by her mother, with her older brother Horacio tutoring in literature, Latin, philosophy and geography on his visits to Dartmouth College.
In 1806 Sarah founded her own school and for several years taught both boys and girls at a time when teaching was not yet a common occupation for women. Then in 1813 she married David Hale, a lawyer who taught his new wife botany and French, helped her develop her writing skills and encouraged her to write for local publications. Sarah was pregnant with her fifth child when David Hale died of pneumonia in 1822.
Thirty-three years old, penniless and in debt, she began writing in earnest to support her family. In 1827 she published her first novel, Northwood, a Tale of New England, in which she campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Perhaps her most famous poem is “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
Sarah Hale’s greatest influence on the culture of the time began in 1828 when she became editor of the new journal The Ladies’ Magazine, later merged with Godey’s Ladies’ Book.
In this popular magazine, read by middle-class women in both Northern and Southern states, Hale advocated for women’s education and for expanding women’s employment opportunities in the medical field. She used her platform as an editor to support women’s property rights and raise money for the preservation of historic sites in America, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon home. She was instrumental in founding Vassar College.
As editor, she did not reprint British articles, as other magazines often did, but paid American contributors well for poetry, fiction, recipes, sewing tips, household tips, articles on architecture, and other subjects of interest to women.
However, being somewhat in love with Britain’s Queen Victoria, Sarah encouraged wearing the white wedding dress as Victoria had worn at her own wedding.
She also popularized the indoor Christmas tree in America, as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband, had done in Britain.
She was against giving women the right to vote. Her feminist leanings favored the quiet influence of women. She wrote: “While the ocean of political life heaves and rages with the storm of partisanship among the men of America… [women as] the true keepers of peace and benevolence should take care to cultivate every gentle feeling.”
This multifaceted woman was just the right person to face a new challenge.
Sarah Hale’s campaign for a national Thanksgiving began in 1846. Although the states of New England celebrated an annual celebration of Thanksgiving, each state set its own date. Sarah thought all states should celebrate together. With pen and ink, she wrote to the governors of every territory and state, including those in the South, who did not appreciate the impertinence of the Yankee woman. Hale wrote Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln. She ended each issue of Godey’s Ladies’ Book with a call for a national Thanksgiving as a way to unite the entire country on a single holiday.
In Sarah’s letters to Abraham Lincoln, she argued that this one holiday should be celebrated by all Americans to bring them together at a time when there were so many divisions. I can’t help but think that Sarah might have learned from her attorney husband a way of making an argument that might have appealed to former attorney Abraham Lincoln. Then, perhaps feeling a little strong, she ended her last letter with the gentle words, “Excuse the liberty I’ve taken.” Lincoln agreed to her request.
So there it is. When Sarah had an idea, she followed it. She wrote her letters for 17 years.
She was 75 years old when her mission was accomplished.
In his Thanksgiving proclamation of October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln listed the many blessings for which Americans, both North and South, should be grateful. He went on to urge that “they also entrust to his tender care, with humble penance for our national perversity and disobedience, all those who have been left widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the deplorable civil war in which we are inevitably engaged.” , and fervently invoke the intervention of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it to full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and unity as soon as it is consistent with divine purposes. ”
Year after year, Presidents continued to make their Thanksgiving proclamations, usually for the fourth Thursday in November but sometimes for a different date. Finally, on December 26, 1941, 95 years after Sarah Josepha Hale wrote her first letter, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Thanksgiving resolution of Congress. Thanksgiving, to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, was now law.
That’s a lot to chew on, but I hope you enjoyed this little history lesson as much as your turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving.
Doreen moved to the woods from Green Bay in 1984, married back-to-the-lander Steve O’Donnell and stayed to raise their three children after he died in 1997. Dave Short joined her in 2016. Doreen welcomes feedback at doreenshort2021 @googlemail.com.