Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sarah Josepha Hale, President Lincoln, and Thanksgiving

A few days late and a few pounds heavier, I emerge from my turkey coma to bring you my Thanksgiving blog.

The American Thanksgiving tradition didn’t actually begin with the first New England settlers in Plymouth. From time to time, these pious souls would announce a “day of Thanksgiving” in response to some stroke of luck or divine providence. These 17th century events were not hearty feasts such as we enjoy today, but days of fasting and prayer. Thanksgivings were called in response to rainfalls which saved crops, the arrival of ships bearing additional supplies and settlers, and other fortunate occurrences, but they were not regular scheduled events. Over the next 200 years, however, the tradition seems to have flourished in New England, despite being little known throughout the rest of the country.

One of the first references to a recognizable American Thanksgiving came in an 1827 novel called Northwood. This fictional account of New England family virtues spends an entire page and a half describing the parlor of New Hampshire’s Romelee family, laid out in anticipation of their Thanksgiving feast. Another two pages are then dedicated to the amount and variety of foodstuffs arranged around the dinner table; the quintessential roasted turkey and “savoury stuffing,” “innumerable bowls of gravy,” “the celebrated pumpkin pie,” “a sirloin of beef,” “a leg of pork and joint of mutton,” “a goose and pair of ducklings,” and “that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.” There’s also a reference to some sort of vegetable, buried somewhere underneath everything else.

The author of Northwood was a prodigy named Sarah Josepha Hale, who would later go on to make a name for herself as the supposed author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the editor of the Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the organizer of a massive public bake sale that provided the funds necessary for completion of Boston’s Bunker Hill monument. Born in New Hampshire in 1788, she seems to have been fascinated with New England’s Thanksgiving traditions for most of her adult life, writing a short story entitled “The Thanksgiving of the Heart” in 1835.

As the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Ms. Hale wrote an editorial in 1837 calling for New England’s informal Thanksgiving tradition to become a national, annual holiday, “on the same day in November, say the last Thursday of the month.” Between 1851 and 1871, she would issue a yearly call for a day of National Thanksgiving. As the years passed and no action was taken at the national level, her arguments became more forceful, noting the growing popularity of the custom and the increasing amount of state support. By 1858, perhaps a little exasperated, she was really hammering home her point:

“We are most happy to agree with the large majority of the governors of the different States as shown in their unanimity of action for several past years, and which, we hope, will this year be adopted by all that THE LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the DAY OF NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people.”

Whether 19th century readers considered her print version of the Twitter shout bad etiquette is not clear.

As the United States edged closer and closer to civil war, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale coyly suggested that “the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people… Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”

In September of 1863, in the midst of war, the gloves came off, and a letter was dispatched to no less a personage than President Abraham Lincoln. “Sir,” it begins, “Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book,” to request a few minutes of your precious time.”Over the next 8 paragraphs, she laid out her case point by point, and listed supporters that include state and territorial governors, foreign ministers, missionaries, and even naval commanders. She urged the President to make a proclamation to affirm Federal support for the holiday. At one point, she casually mentioned having enlisted her friend William H. Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State) to confer with Lincoln and presumably advance the cause. At the end of her letter, Ms. Hale crisply informed the Commander in Chief that “an immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments.”

Seemingly bowing before the onslaught, Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1863. In it, he acknowledged that even in the midst of a war of “unequaled magnitude and severity,” the United States had been blessed by good harvests, expanding settlements, and increasing population. He emphasized that these blessings had stemmed not from man, but from God, and that the nation should accordingly give thanks where thanks was due.

“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.”

This Thanksgiving season, in addition to many, many other blessings, I am thankful to President Lincoln and even more to the relentless, indomitable Sarah Josepha Buell Hale.

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The author of this blog has absolutely no authority to make official proclamations of any kind regarding existing or theoretical holidays, days of fasting, days of prayer... days of any kind, really. If you have a non-holiday related comment, post incessantly below.


Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell. Northwood: A Tale of New England. New York: H. Long and brother, 1852.

--- “Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 28, 1863 (Thanksgiving).” Letter to Abraham Lincoln. 28 Sep. 1863. The Abraham Lincoln Papers. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

---  "Sarah J. Hale to William H. Seward, Sunday, October 09, 1864 (Thanksgiving)." Letter to William H. Seward. 9 Oct. 1864. The Abraham Lincoln Papers. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Day of National Thanksgiving. By the President of the United States of America: A Proclamation.” 3 Oct. 1863. The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Licolniana. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.

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