Sarah Hale’s Campaign for a National Thanksgiving Holiday

Silhouette portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by Auguste Edouart, National Portrait Gallery
Silhouette portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by Auguste Edouart, 1842, National Portrait Gallery

If you love Thanksgiving, you should learn the name Sarah Josepha Hale.

Starting in 1846 and continuing until her retirement in 1877, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) used her position as editress1 of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine — one of the most popular and influential magazines of the time — to campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday in November. For many years, she wrote two editorials in the magazine explaining the benefits of a national Thanksgiving holiday and encouraging her readers to work for one by pressuring public officials. She also wrote thousands of personal letters (by hand!) to elected officials, to the influencers of the day (other magazine editors, prominent preachers, etc.), and to her wide network of friends and family.

When Hale started her campaign, Thanksgiving wasn’t a new concept in America. Towns, villages and states held harvest festivals in the autumn that would generally involve a late-morning trip to church for a special service, followed by a feast2.  But there was no national Thanksgiving Day.  For example, in the late 1700s, towns on Long Island celebrated Thanksgiving on the first Thursday after the cattle returned from the common pasture. Because the return of the cattle was highly weather-dependent, the date varied from year to year3. In 1789, President Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that set forth “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” but this was a one-time event.

Hale wanted a national Thanksgiving holiday. To Hale, a national holiday would be a “promoter of this national spirit,” demonstrate the “prosperity and happiness of the American people,” encourage generosity, and add a third patriotic holiday to the national calendar to supplement Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July.

Her campaign achieved a major success in 1863 when President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the fourth Thursday of November 1863 a national day of thanksgiving4. But it was only a partial success for Hale, because it was a one-time declaration, not a Congressionally-mandated national holiday, so her campaign continued until her retirement. Unfortunately for Hale, she didn’t live to see complete success — it wasn’t until 1941 that Congress finally made Thanksgiving a national holiday, the fourth Thursday in November.

Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale in Woman's record, or, Sketches of all distinguished women
Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale in Woman’s record, or, Sketches of all distinguished women (1855)

Sarah Hale and the National Thanksgiving Holiday

She was born Sarah Josepha Buell in Newport, New Hampshire in 1788. Girls rarely attended school in those days, so her primary education was from her mother and older brother. She was a schoolteacher until her marriage to David Hale in 1813. They had five children together, and then tragedy struck in 1822:  David died, leaving Hale and her five children on their own. Her husband’s Masonic brothers helped her and her sister-in-law start a millinery shop5, but it wasn’t successful. Running a shop wasn’t her calling.

Sarah Hale’s calling was writing — and later, editing and promoting writers. With short pieces and later with a successful novel called Northwood (1827)6, she started earning enough to support her family. Northwood was a big seller, leading to more writing success and jobs at magazines, and eventually she ended up at Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, an up and coming periodical based in Philadelphia. For the next 40 years, she was the Book’s editress, helping to build a truly American literature, promoting education for women, providing useful information to the readers, and campaigning for a national Thanksgiving holiday.

Hale’s campaign at Godey’s began in 1846.  Twice a year — in the Spring and Autumn — Hale would use her monthly “Editor’s Table” column to promote a national Thanksgiving holiday, and also encourage her readers to take up the cause.  Throughout the year, she wrote letter after letter — thousands of letters, each one written by hand — and certainly used her “social network” to promote the cause (as editress of a prominent magazine, she was well-connected).

Unfortunately, her letters were not archived carefully (one book I consulted said that most were burned, a handful saved, and some sold to private collectors), so we don’t know what kind of replies she received from lawmakers.  One record that we do have, however, is an 1863 response from Secretary of State William Seward’s office, which read “I have received your interesting letter — and have commended the same to the consideration of the President [Lincoln].” [Rogers, p. 100]

By the mid-1850s, most of the states had a fixed day for Thanksgiving — generally the last Thursday in November — but it wasn’t until the midst of the Civil War, that Thanksgiving became a national celebration7.  On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued Presidential Proclamation 106, which invited Americans “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.”8

Unfortunately, without definitive documents — like a letter from Lincoln to Seward saying something like “Mrs. Hale convinced me: let us proclaim a national Thanksgiving holiday” — we can never know Hale’s true impact on national Thanksgiving thinking. It’s safe to say that she influenced many of her readers and correspondents about the importance of the holiday, while also using her magazine and other writing to shape how the holiday was celebrated (the appropriate foods, what to wear, the importance of family, etc.).

A Selection of Sarah Hale’s Editorials about Thanksgiving

While preparing this piece, I read some of Hale’s Thanksgiving editorials (thank you Hathi Trust!).  Many are similar, so I’ll highlight a few that contain her favorite themes or are from significant years (all italics and unusual capitalization are as in the original).

This is from 1847, one of her first editorials (strangely, I didn’t find one in the 1846 volumes):

Would that the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day. Then, though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that all were enjoying the blessings of the days…As this is a subject in which ladies should take a deep interest, will it be though presumptuous if our “Book,” as their especial organ, leads the way in this good work of union in Thanksgiving? The “Lady’s Book” then suggests that, from this year, 1847, henceforth and forever, as long as the Union endures, that the last Thursday in November be the Day set apart by every State for its annual Thanksgiving. Will not the whole press of the country advocate this suggestion? (Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1847)

In 1859 she focuses on one of her favorite themes, Thanksgiving will create a patriotic triad of holidays:

We now have but two days set apart for popular rejoicing. The 22d of February is the Day of National Patriotism [Washington’s birthday]; the Fourth of July is the Jubilee of National Independence. Let the last Thursday in November be consecrated by gratitude to God for His wonderful blessings on our people, the crowning glory of which is our National Union. We shall then have three American Festivals, which our own citizens, wherever they might be, would observe with pride, joy, and thankfulness. … A national feeling of Thanksgiving, putting the bounty, goodness, and love of the Creator before the eyes of the dullest and the hearts of the coldest, would effect incalculable benefits to our Country. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, July 1859)

Hale’s November 1861 Thanksgiving editorial was almost certainly written after the Civil War had begun — Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12, the Battle of Bull Run was on July 21 — but her piece only obliquely addresses the Civil War that began in April:

This past year has also been distinguished by its freedom from pestilence and wasting sicknesses. Health has been in all our borders — would that we could add, peace has reigned, and good-will has been extended! but we must all acknowledge that the goodness of God has not failed. Shall we not, then, lay aside our enmities and strifes, and suspend our worldly cares, toils and pursuits on one day in the year, devoting it to a public Thanksgiving for all the good gifts God has bestowed on us and all the earth? (Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1861)

Hale realized that Presidential proclamations were not enough: she wanted a Congressionally-mandated holiday (it would be another 70 years before that happened). In 1871 she notes that more legislative action is needed:

But one thing is wanting. It is eminently fit that this National Holiday shall rest upon the same legal basis as its companion, the Twenty-second of February and the Fourth of July. As things now stand, our Thanksgiving is exposed to the chances of the time. Unless the President or the Governor of the State in office happens to see fit, no day is appointed for its observance. Is not this a state of things which calls for instant remedy? Should not our festival be assured to us by law? (Godey’s Lady Book, November 1871)

Did Sarah Hale Ever Meet President Lincoln?

As I read about Hale’s Thanksgiving campaign, I wondered: Did Hale ever meet President Lincoln in person?  In The Lady of Godey’s, Ruth Finley suggests that the answer is yes.  Finley notes that Hale’s grandson Charles B. Hale once said: “I remember my father saying that his mother had visited President Lincoln and had found him a very kindly and interested gentleman” but unfortunately there are no records of the meeting (and, of course, no selfies in the 1860s).

A meeting seems possible: Hale had a family connection to the President.  One of Hale’s daughters (Frances Ann) was married to a man whose brother was Major General David Hunter9. General Hunter was a personal friend of the President and had a professional connection through his military service during the Civil War. Hunter’s association with Lincoln began with the president-elect’s circuitous trip from Springfield to Washington for the 1861 inauguration. During a stop at Buffalo, Hunter suffered a broken arm protecting the president-elect during a crowd incident. During the Civil War, he was in the Battle of Bull Run, was commander of the Western Department in late 1861, the commander of Department of the South in 1863, and saw further action after leaving that post. If General Hunter asked the President to take a meeting with his sister-in-law, it seems likely that the President would have agreed. And if the meeting happened, Thanksgiving would certainly be on the agenda.

As you celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family along with the rest of the United States, remember Sarah Hale. Her tireless efforts helped create a popular consensus that made Thanksgiving a part of the national calendar.

Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner - Thomas Nast - Harper's Weekly Nov 1869
Drawing by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 1869

References and Works Consulted

Image Credits

Originally published November 16, 2017.

Notes

  1. Hale preferred that term over editor
  2. I almost wrote “feast that featured seasonal specialties” here, but in the 18th and 19th century, nearly all eating was done with the seasons
  3. This historical tidbit is from the book by Finley. See reference list below for details.
  4. See images of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation at the National Archives
  5. A shop specializing in hats and accessories.
  6. Northwood includes a Thanksgiving dinner — clearly Hale had the holiday on her mind long before her Godey’s campaign
  7. To be sure, the states participating in treason in the defense of slavery weren’t included
  8. This was the same day that Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation 74 years earlier
  9. (The Library of Congress has portraits and other items related to Major General David Hunter)

2 comments

  1. It was quite enlightening to read the old magazine articles and learn about Sarah Hale. Her approach to Thanksgiving — which I didn’t focus on much here — was much more religious. You get a taste of that in the 1861 editorial, but many others were far more about gratitude toward the creator. Over the years the holiday has become much more secular (though in recent years one might argue that it is tilting towards worship of the almighty dollar with Black Friday sales starting on Thanksgiving evening).

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