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.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Nov. 28, 2013, midnight

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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