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Politics

The Woman Who Convinced Abraham Lincoln to Create Thanksgiving

Forget what you think you know—a 19th-century magazine editor gave us the holiday as we know it today.

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), circa 1831.(James Reid Lambdin)

photo of Alex Seitz-Wald
November 28, 2013

Every schoolchild who's drawn a hand turkey knows that the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. But the holiday as we know it didn't begin for another 240 years.

After Plymouth, Thanksgiving was only observed sporadically, and even then mostly in New England. It didn't gain national prominence until the Revolution, when George Washington and the Continental Congress declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. A few more thanksgivings followed on an ad-hoc basis on various dates, but the tradition didn't hold. Thomas Jefferson made no official observances, and the holiday lapsed entirely after James Madison's 1815 Thanksgiving proclamation. There was no national Thanksgiving holiday for the next 50 years.

Enter Sarah Josepha Hale.

 

At a time when women were not given much of an education and expected to stay quiet, Hale had a remarkable career as novelist, activist, abolitionist, and editor of the most popular women's magazine in the country, Godey's Lady's Book.

When Hale's husband died suddenly, leaving her with five children and little money, she had to support herself. She took a job and managed to get a book of poems published, which found success and led to her first novel, Northwood, which came out the same year as Uncle Tom's Cabin and also challenged slavery.

The novel was a huge success and led to a job editing a women's magazine in Boston. In her day, widows often had more freedom than married women. Over her long career (she edited Godey's for 40 years and died at 91), she used her perch to advocate for women's education and was a big booster of Vassar College, which dropped "female" from its name at her insistence

"She found it maddening that women did not have the same access to education that men did," says Mary Lou McGuire, the archivist at the Richards Free Library in Hale's hometown of Newport, N.H., which dedicated a monument to Hale on Saturday. The library also gives out a prestigious literary award in Hale's name every year.

"She was extremely well known and in almost every household in the country. There were not many women's magazines and people looked forward to seeing what she had to say. Her editorial table held huge sway," McGuire added.

Hale printed only original, American writing, and helped discover and promote authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Even if you've never heard of her, you know her work in "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which she wrote in 1830.

A patriot to the core—her father was a veteran of the Revolution—Hale was also instrumental in the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston and the preservation of Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, among other projects.

But her biggest achievement is Thanksgiving. Over 17 years, Hale tirelessly campaigned to establish a national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November. She wrote countless essays and lobbied five presidents and dozens of governors. "She was extremely determined," says McGuire, "a formidable force."

"In our Great Republic, from the St. John's to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all our people, as one Brotherhood, will rejoice together, and give thanks to God for our National, State, and Family blessings," Hale wrote.

The movement was effective and by the late 1850s, most states recognized Thanksgiving, but they celebrated the holiday on different dates, as early as October and as late as January. Finally in 1863, after the Civil War began to turn in his favor, Abraham Lincoln acquiesced and declared a national holiday. "I desire [the last Thursday of November] to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving," Lincoln proclaimed.

With a stroke of his pen, Lincoln "began our modern sequence of national Thanksgivings," writes historian James Baker in his book, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. "While the others were all providential wartime observances after the old style, the last [Thanksgiving proclamation] was different—it was a 'for the generals' (general mercies, not military generals), New England-style, end-of-November celebration of the sort Mrs. Hale had been lobbying for all along."

In Northwood, Hale even laid out what a Thanksgiving feast should look like: Roasted turkey, chicken pot pie, other meats, gravy, vegetables, and of course, "the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving."

The holiday has been observed without interruption since, though it took until 1941 for Congress to codify Thanksgiving into law.

Despite her tremendous accomplishments, Hale has been been largely forgotten to history.

As times changed, so did her influence and legacy. "She was a feminist, basically, because her life work was to get women educated, but it is a different take on feminism," says McGuire. Her magazine reinforced traditional, middle-class ideals of domestic femininity. And her writing, women were to be educated, absolutely, but for their own edification and as a means to improve their ability to be effective mothers. 

She thought women to be the superior sex, but opposed suffrage and believed women had a duty to hold society together from the home by exerting a "secret, silent influence" over men, who could be corrupted by the outside world. (It's more than a bit ironic, then, that Hale herself seemed to live by none of these values, leaving her children behind in New Hampshire to move to Boston and pursue a career in magazine editing after her husband died.)

Even though Hale "got left by the wayside," as McGuire says, she continues to exert that silent influence in every American's home the last Thursday of November, when families gather for a singular expression of American domestic wholesomness -- just Hale always wanted.

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