As we all give thanks this Thanksgiving, we might want to pause and thank Sarah J. Hale. Without her unrelenting 35-year long campaign, Thanksgiving would not be our national day of thanks.
By any measure and in any era, Sarah Hale was a remarkable woman. Sarah Josepha Buell married David Hale in 1813, and had five children with him. When he died suddenly in 1822, she was compelled to turn to writing to support herself and her family (One of her children’s verses was “Mary had a Little Lamb”). After the successful publication of a book of poetry as well as a novel, she was solicited to become the editor of a new magazine aimed at women, Ladies Magazine and Literary Gazette. In 1836, Louis Godey convinced Hale to become the editor of his magazine. Godey’s Lady’s Book. Godey’s Lady’s Book was one of the most influential magazines of the 19th century, reached a wide audience and covered topics ranging from health, beauty, cooking, gardening, and architecture. Hale published articles about proper writing techniques and prescribed reading lists, similar to ones given at college courses, to further educate her readers. Hale also published lists of schools that accepted women and advocated for women’s education. Over the years, Hale became more vocal in suggesting that, not only should women be educated, but they should receive a similar education to men.
Beginning in 1828, Sarah Hale began writing editorials calling for the entire nation to observe a national holiday on Thanksgiving, similar to the holiday that she had experienced as a native New Englander. In between the editorials, Hale wrote hundreds of letters to politicians, including five presidents, lobbying for a day of thanks.
35 years later, in September 1863, less than three months following the Battle of Gettysburg, one of her letters reached Abraham Lincoln. It begins:
Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and …as I trust…even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”
Timing, and Persistence, is Everything
Finally, after years of pleas to deaf ears, Sarah Hale benefited from propitious timing. The fall of 1863 was a depressingly dark period in a nation splintered by an appalling civil war. The Battle of Gettysburg, with more than 50,000 Union and Confederate dead, lingered painfully in memory. The Battle of Chickamauga, fought in September, was one of the worst Union defeats of the War. President Lincoln was attuned to the mood of the nation, and was sensitive to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers away from home…as well as being keen to find ways to rally the nation’s spirit. Hale’s letter also benefited from some clever marketing on her part. She included two letters of support from governors who endorsed her effort, as well as a mention of her “good friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward”…who happened to be Lincoln’s Secretary of State at the time.
On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving, a national holiday.
Hale followed up Lincoln’s proclamation with a final editorial poem to celebrate this day of national unity and thanks:
All the blessings of the fields,
All the stores the garden yields,
All the plenty summer pours,
Autumn’s rich, o’erflowing stores,
Peace, prosperity and health,
Private bliss and public wealth,
Knowledge with its gladdening streams,
Pure religions holier beams…Lord, for these our souls shall raise.
Grateful vows and solemn praise.