Thanksgiving Day in America exists primarily because of Sara Josepha Hale’s tireless campaign to create it. Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire, to Captain Gordon Buell, a Revolutionary war veteran, and Martha Whittlesay Buell. Her family annually celebrated a Thanksgiving holiday, just as she did after she met and married David Hale in 1811, who unfortunately died in 1822. A few years after her husband’s death, the widow Hale began serving as editor to John Blake’s journal, the Ladies’ Magazine.
Hale published her first novel in 1827 under the title Northwood; Life North and South* and because of her fond memories surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday, she made sure to include a chapter about the tradition with a mouth-watering description of the Thanksgiving Day dinner:
“The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of basting. At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions by that rich burgomaster of the provisions called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast. The one now displayed could never had had many peers. … Plates of pickles, preserves and butter, and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers. … There was a huge plum pudding, custards, and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche. There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits. On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant wine, and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer.”
In 1830, the same year that the French socialite Madame Récamier mourned the loss of her husband Jacques-Rose Récamier, Hale published Poems for Our Children that included “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (originally titled “Mary’s Lamb”). Louis Antoine Godey of Philadelphia liked Hale’s work and bought Ladies’ Magazine, renamed it American Ladies’ Magazine, and merged it with his journal, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale then began working in 1837 as the editor, or as she liked to call herself “editress,” to Godey’s Lady’s Book.
In 1846, while in that position, she began to campaign for a national Thanksgiving Day in the United States. She probably had no idea at the time that her campaign would last seventeen long years. During those years, she also wrote letters to five U.S. Presidents – Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln – proposing and lobbying for a national Thanksgiving Day. In addition, she wanted the holiday to be set on the last Thursday of November.
Up to this point Thanksgiving had been celebrated mostly in New England with each state determining its own date for celebrating. This meant that dates ranged from as early as October to as late as January. Moreover, the Thanksgiving Day was not even celebrated in the southern states.
That did not stop Hales from believing a national Thanksgiving Day should be established. In fact, she provided justifications for the holiday. Chief among her reasons was her belief that such a holiday would ease tensions between the northern and southern states. Other reasons Hale detailed in a letter, which in part was published in 1853 in the Bradford Inquirer:
“There are many good reasons, religious, political, moral, and social, for holding Thanksgiving day simultaneously in every State of our Union, that I feel sure no serious objection would be urged. The last Thursday in November being once adopted and politically acknowledged as the day, custom would seem to fix its observation as the distinctive privilege of a free Christian People. Whenever an American was located, this would be introduced. – God would be recognized as our Lord and benefactor, and a brotherhood in happiness as the great aim of our institutions.”
By 1854, Hale had made good headway with her cause. Thirty states and U.S. territories had established a Thanksgiving Day. However, there was still no national Thanksgiving Day to celebrate, although many people were celebrating what the Pittston Gazette of Pennsylvania described on 17 November 1854 as:
“The day of Thanksgiving is the day when families meet together; when the hoary grandsire and the prattling grandchild sit at the same table, enjoying the bounteous provision, which by the blessing of God on the labors of their hands have been bestowed upon them. This day old friendships will be renewed, and we trust ancient feuds forgotten and forgiven; and we hope no child of poverty … will retire hungry to bed, and all – the possessor of wealth and the hardy son of toil – will close their eyes at night satisfied that they have done their best to promote, as far as lay in their power, the happiness of those around them; and that while contrasting their own blessings with the misery and oppression that is heard of abroad, they may breathe a prayer to God before they close their eyes in sleep, that in His appointed times the same blessing may be vouchsafed to the whole human family.”
Although Hale had not yet succeeded in establishing a national Thanksgiving Day, she did not let go of the idea. Momentum for it continued to build, which was further indicated by what the Burlington Times of Vermont wrote in 1860:
“We must advert once more to this grand subject of nationalizing Thanksgiving Day, by adopting as a permanent rule, the last Thursday in November in all the States. Last year, 1859, thirty States and three Territories held Thanksgiving on the same day – the last Thursday in November. This year we hope that every State and Territory will be included in the list. Last year this Thanksgiving was observed by the American residents in Paris, Berlin, and Berne,** in the last two cities the American ministers to Switzerland and Prussia took the leading part in the festivities. Thanksgiving was also held on board two of the American squadrons, that of the Mediterranean and the African; and, moreover, several of the American missionary establishments in foreign lands have signified their willingness to set apart the day named.
This last year the last Thursday in November falls on the 29th. If all the States and Territories hold their Thanksgiving on that day, there will be a complete moral and social reunion of the people of America in 1860 – Would not this be a good omen for the perpetual union of the States! May god grant us not only the omen, but the fulfillment is our dearest wish!”
A year later, in 1861, the American Civil War broke out. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president provoked the South Carolina legislature to call a state convention to consider secession, which was unanimously voted on and adopted under “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Lincoln was against the south seceding and called the Constitution a more perfect union and any secession “legally void.” The south, however, pressed forward with secession and tried to negotiate a peace treaty, but Lincoln refused.
At the time, President Lincoln had no intention of invading the Southern states, nor did he intend to end slavery where it existed. He did however state that he would use force to maintain possession of Federal property. Thus, an attack on Fort Sumter by Confederates rallied Lincoln’s Northern forces to undertake the enormous task of conquering a united South.
The American Civil War would ultimately result in around 620,000 deaths and four years of bloody war that effectively ended on 9 April 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House.
Amid, the American Civil War, Hale wrote another letter to the government hoping her ideas would be relayed to the president. Her letter was dated 28 September 1863 and she identified herself as the “editress “of Godey’s Lady’s Book. In her letter she stated that she wanted to have Thanksgiving Day established as “National and fixed Union Festival.” She also noted that she had been pursuing the idea of a Thanksgiving Day unsuccessfully for years:
“I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid – that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; – or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has ocurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.
I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag – could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him 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 each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.
Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.
An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.”
Hale’s request was forwarded to President Lincoln, who considered it and on 3 October 1863 issued a proclamation establishing a nationwide Thanksgiving Day. His proclamation was printed in various papers to ensure that the American public was aware of the new national holiday he had proclaimed. Lincoln stated:
“The year that is drawing toward the close has been filed with the blessing 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 so extraordinary a nature that they can not 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 invite and provoke the aggression of foreign States, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have ben 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.
The needful diversion of wealth and 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 by the camp, the siege, and the battle-field, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human could hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealt with us in anger of our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverentially, and gratefully acknowledge as with one heart and 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 as a day of thanksgiving and prayer to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in heavens, and I recommend too 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 suffers 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 divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.”
Since President Lincoln’s stirring proclamation, the Thanksgiving holiday has been celebrated annually and was also celebrated on the final Thursday of November until President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with that tradition in 1839. He established the fourth Thursday of November as the holiday rather than the fifth one because America was in the middle of a depression and he thought an earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants a longer period to sell goods before Christmas. Apparently, at the time, advertising goods for Christmas before Thanksgiving was considered inappropriate.
On 6 October 1941, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing the traditional last-Thursday date for the Thanksgiving Day to begin in 1942. However, in December of that year the Senate also passed an amendment to split the difference by requiring that Thanksgiving be observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, which was usually the last Thursday and sometimes (two years out of seven, on average) the next to last Thursday. The amendment also passed the House, and on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed this bill, making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law and fixing the Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday of November.
Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving Day and a grateful holiday. See you on December 2nd.
*The novel was published under the title of A New England Tale in London that same year.
**Berne was the city where Madame Tussaud’s uncle and mentor, Philippe Mathé Curtius, lived prior to moving to Paris and establishing his wax museum, Salon de Cire, that she would inherit upon his death.
-  S. J. Hale, Northwood; or, Life North and South (New York: H. Long & Brother, 1852), p. 89–91.
-  Bradford Inquirer, “Thanksgiving Day,” December 3, 1853, p. 2.
-  Pittston Gazette, “Thanksgiving Day,” November 17, 1854, p. 2.
-  Burlington Times, “Thanksgiving,” October 27, 1860, p. 4.
-  Lincoln Studies Center, “Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 28, 1863,” Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.
-  F. Moore, The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, with Documents Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, Etc v. 7 (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1864), p. 523.