As school children, most of us were taught the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621. However, what happened to the holiday in the subsequent years is a story often left untold. Following the first Thanksgiving in 1621, celebrations of Thanksgiving were irregular and disunited. Days of celebration and thanksgiving for the harvest occurred in the fall throughout the colonies, taking place anytime from late September through early December. Thanksgiving was most commonly observed in the New England colonies of Pilgrim stock, and less so in the south.
It took almost 250 more years for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday fixed on a specific day (then the last Thursday of November, now the fourth Thursday of November). Without the advocacy of writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, Thanksgiving may well have slipped silently into the past as so many of our seasonal holidays have.
Sarah Josepha Hale was an autodidactic New Hampshire mother and writer. She wrote a much celebrated novel about slavery, published in 1827, after which she was offered the editorship of a women’s magazine, The Ladies Magazine and Literary Gazette. She was the first female editor of a magazine in the U.S. From her post as editor of this highly successful magazine, she petitioned her national audience in support of many civil, social, and patriotic causes, including women’s education and the establishment of a national Thanksgiving.
Starting in 1846, she began her advocacy work toward making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Over the next 17 years, she would write thousands of letters, petition five different U.S. presidents, and publish numerous articles in her magazine all in support of creating a national holiday of Thanksgiving. Hale hoped that the establishment of a shared national day of Thanksgiving might prevent the outbreak of war between the increasingly fractious North and South. “There is a deep moral influence in the periodical seasons of rejoicing,” she wrote, “in which whole communities participate. They bring out…the best sympathies in our natures.”
Hale finally found an ally in President Lincoln. She wrote him many letters and eventually visited him in person at the White House. Three months after the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln ordered a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. In his proclamation, Lincoln wrote:
And I recommend to them, that while offering up the ascriptions due to Him for such singular deliverance and blessings, they do so with humble penitence…commend to His tender care those who have become widows, orphans, or 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, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, and Union.
Although possibly influenced by Hale, Lincoln’s motivations for the establishment of a national Thanksgiving were likely complex. Godfrey Hodgson, author of A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving, contends that the proclamation was, “…probably motivated by the need to maintain the civilian morale of a Union whose ultimate victory might now be inevitable, but where the costs and travails of the war were bitterly discouraging. Lincoln was always acutely aware of the connection between civilian morale and military victory in a great citizen army, and he was particularly sensitive to the moral sensibilities of the New England Christian intelligentsia and to that New England Protestant tradition from which, after all, the nation owed Thanksgiving in the first place. The decision to make Thanksgiving a national holiday illustrates the two sides of Lincoln’s genius: the moral prophet and the shrewd politician.” Whatever the motivation behind Lincoln’s proclamation, Hale’s influence on the President, local governments, and everyday Americans was instrumental in forging the idea of a national day of Thanksgiving. And that is something we can all be thankful for.