Days of thanksgiving have been celebrated in North America going back at least to the 17th century, and almost certainly before that.
The Thanksgiving we celebrate in modern times, however, really began in 1863 – and for that we may thank Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale is someone we might all benefit from knowing a little better, because at the heart of this modern holiday is a strong, smart woman who defied the odds of her time.
Born in 1788 in New Hampshire, in the year the Constitution was ratified, she was the daughter of Captain Gordon and Martha Whittlesy Buell, who apparently believed in equal education for boys and girls, an idea more radical in America then than abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement is today.
Sarah was home-schooled by her mother, and by her older brother who had been to Dartmouth College.
She became a schoolteacher. Widowed in 1822, she published a collection of her poetry the next year (she also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). She wrote a novel, one of the first about slavery in North America. She was of course an abolitionist.
Hale moved to Boston and became the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a post she held until she was 90. Unlike many other editors in America, she insisted on publishing work by American writers including work by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Washington Irving. She helped to found Vassar, the first women’s college.
These would have been remarkable achievements for anyone, but for a woman in America when Susan B. Anthony was a toddler, they were nearly astounding.
That brings us to Thanksgiving. The holiday was not alien in America before Hale, but it was mostly celebrated in New England, largely unknown in the South, and it had no fixed date; the only national holidays were Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day.
Beginning in 1846, Hale agitated to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She thought it would help to unify North and South. She wrote to four presidents on the subject before she reached Lincoln in 1863, at the height of the Civil War and still 57 years before women in America would win the vote. She was after a “Thanksgiving Union,” she said.
“Would it not be fitting and patriotic,” she wrote, if he were “to appeal to the governors of all the states, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of eachsState? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.”
Her letter was dated Sept. 28. Lincoln issued his proclamation four days later:
“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” it reads, “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 theater of military conflict ... and the country ... is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. ... I do therefore invite my fellow citizens ... to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
We like the Great Union festival of America. It seems especially apt now. It could still be a day to celebrate together despite our differences – and if there is room, to remember a pioneering feminist who would not take no for an answer.