Most know that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. However, did you know that the credit for this American holiday goes to a widow by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale?

Ms. Hale was a self educated school teacher from New Hampshire. She was the daughter of a tavern owner and married a lawyer by the name of David Hale in 1813. Her husband died young of a stroke in 1822, leaving her as a young widow and mother to their five children.

Ms. Hale used some of that grit and self determination, which she previously relied on to educate herself to the position of a school teacher, and embarked on a new career as a writer. She wrote poetry, most notably “Mary had a little lamb”, and other stories and novels, eventually becoming an influential editor in her time. She was praised for her writing and carved out a successful career, allowing her to provide for her children.

It was in her first novel, “Northwood”(1827) that Ms. hale described a New England tradition of a thanksgiving feast. This began a lifelong obsession of Thanksgiving being declared a national holiday. She credited the settlers of Massachusetts, rather than the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock with the creation of the feast, but felt deeply that the feast should be celebrated throughout all of America. In fact thanksgiving feasts were common throughout the northeast and were considered a holiday in many states, however it was celebrated on different days of the year, and virtually unknown in the south. Ms. Hale was determined to change this.

She used her position as a writer and editor to appeal to the public for the need of a national holiday, and she began a letter writing campaign to American Presidents. In 1847 she embarked on her campaign with editorials and letters, an effort she would maintain for sixteen years.

Several strong themes carried throughout Sarah’s campaign.

One was the importance of Thanksgiving’s religious connotations:

“THE FOURTH OF JULY is an exponent of independence and civil freedom. THANKSGIVING DAY is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings. These two festivals should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits and thought as inseperatable from American life.” (1852)

Another was Thanksgiving’s role in unifying a geographically far-flung nation:

“It would be better to have the day fixed by the expression of public sentiment that no discord would be possible, but, from Maine to Mexico, from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea, the hymn of thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised, as the pledge in the enjoyment of God’s blessings during the year.” (1854)

It was the latter plea that would be most telling when civil war erupted in 1861. However, Sarah Hale saw the conflict between the states as even more reason for a national holiday to promote unity, and thanks for the blessings bestowed on America.

In September of 1863, she wrote to President Lincoln urging him to declare the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. She appealed to his desire to unify a deeply divided nation, and finally her plea did not fall upon deaf ears. On October 3, Lincoln issued a proclamation to urge all Americans to observe the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving.

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, 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 and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,Secretary of State

The dream of a school teacher turned magazine editor was realized, and a hurting nation was encouraged by one of its greatest leaders to come together, feast together, and join in thanks. Sarah would live to see 91 and quite a few Thanksgiving Days.

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