Thanks for Thanksgiving

In her earlier career as a poet and editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788–1879) composed a poem so beloved it is a surprise to learn that a human being wrote it: “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She is also the individual most responsible for the creation of an American holiday so beloved that it is a surprise to learn that someone had to campaign for it: Thanksgiving, which we celebrate today.

Hale was an editor, or, to follow the custom of the era, the “editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a pre-Civil War monthly magazine that sometimes topped 100,000 per issue in circulation. It was a popular periodical and as its editor she was an influential person. Further, she held the job for forty years, and finally retired in 1877 when she was almost 90. The magazine went out of business the next year.

She and her husband, David, had five children, but David died in 1822 when Sarah was thirty-three. From the day he died until her own death nearly six decades later, she wore black to designate herself a widow in permanent mourning. With the help of her husband’s associates, she started to publish her own writing, which made her one of America’s first female novelists.

Sarah Hale, 1831

Sarah Hale, 1831

Around the time she published “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” 1831, Hale’s portrait was painted by James Lambdin (no relation to Mary’s pet). Because Lambdin painted the portraits of two U.S. Presidents who were also among the first ones ever photographed, we know that his portraits captured his subjects quite precisely. Thus his portrait of young Sarah Hale, seen at right, already in her mourning black, must be true to life as well.

A few years after Lambdin painted her portrait, she was hired to edit Godey’s. Her legacy as editor is a mixed one: she wrote and published articles in favor of advanced education and employment opportunities for women, but her publication (and she herself) did not support women’s suffrage. She held the view that women writers wrote specifically for women and for children. Hale was anti-slavery and pro-North and pro-Union (she was a New Englander) but anti-war.

When the idea of a campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday came to her, Hale became relentless about it and she marshaled all her resources. Since she was already a successful fundraiser who had organized supporters to see the Bunker Hill Monument completed and was one of the founders of Vassar College in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, Hale knew that persistence would win, eventually. She seemed to measure time in decades, not years.

Thanksgiving days and harvest days are common around the world, but it was always a grab-bag and a bit of a movable feast in America. The Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Florida, are believed to have held a celebration feast with the local Native Americans in September 1565, for one. Up the coast, the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621, or a couple of years later, was probably celebrated in September as well.

There is almost no way to separate fact from legend about the Pilgrim Thanksgiving, the one said to have been celebrated by Pilgrims alongside Native Americans in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation, but it is known that by 1630 Massachusetts Bay Colony was celebrating a holiday that was referred to as Thanksgiving. (The Pilgrims at Plymouth and the Puritans who were building Massachusetts Bay Colony were not friends, even though both groups were made of Calvinists who did not find the Anglican Church back home in England strict enough.)

The Pilgrim William Bradford’s famous journal, Of Plymouth Plantation, which covers the years from around 1630 to 1650, recounts that first Thanksgiving and matches our collective cultural memory of that day, but it vanished during the Revolutionary War and was forgotten until 1897. Bradford’s account may as well be considered a twentieth century document, but it served to confirm stories that we had been telling ourselves about ourselves for two centuries.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress proclaimed several Thanksgiving days, usually soon after a military victory, and various colonies created their own Thanksgiving traditions. In some years, the first few presidents (with the noteworthy exception of Thomas Jefferson) issued national proclamations of a Thanksgiving day, but in some years they simply did not. Various states created their own traditions. Many of the states in the American South did not.

For more than two decades, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote editorials and letters to office-holders that advocated a national Thanksgiving Day. It is her work in this matter that gives us the annual tradition we now celebrate. Her letters reached five presidents: Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln. (A portion of Sarah Hale’s letter to Lincoln is shown at top. Note that she labeled the missive “private.”)

Finally, in 1863, the Lincoln Administration saw the brilliance of a national day of thanksgiving: The Civil War was going to end sooner or later, after all, and the nation would need new sentiments of unity, a healing reminder of gratitude for the north and south re-united or for the north alone without the south. A new national holiday that was neither of the north nor of the south in its mythology but newly created for the more strongly united United States of America would fill that need.

The first modern American Thanksgiving was proclaimed for that year, 1863, and it has been a national holiday every November since. Hale was seventy-five years old.

Lincoln’s proclamation, dated October 3, 1863, reads:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

In your day of family and football, turkey and trimmings, include Sarah Hale and Abraham Lincoln in your thanks.

* * * *
Some of this first appeared a few years ago.

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One comment

  1. lifelessons · November 21, 2018

    Thanks for the history lesson, Mark.


Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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