Since religion was such an important part of early colonial life, community-wide days of thanksgiving weren’t uncommon. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress started co-opting the tradition to celebrate certain key battle victories on a nationwide scale. In September 1789, Congress asked President George Washington to designate a day of thanksgiving for another political reason: to mark the formation of the U.S. Constitution. On October 3, Washington decreed that November 26 of that year would be a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
It didn’t officially create an annual holiday, but many states did continue celebrating Thanksgiving sometime in late fall or early winter in the years that followed. Throughout the 19th century, one woman in particular stood out as Thanksgiving’s biggest fan: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale.
Who was Sarah Josepha Buell Hale?
Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788 and homeschooled by parents who thought women deserved an education. She showed a clear aptitude for writing, and when her husband died in 1822, she used those skills to provide for her five young children. After publishing a collection of poems and an anti-slavery novel called Northwood in the mid-1820s, Hale took a job as the editor of a women’s magazine later known as Godey’s Lady’s Book. Though she wasn’t exactly a feminist by today’s standards—she underscored women’s domestic duties and opposed women’s suffrage—she did champion women’s right to education and supported other up-and-coming female writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Child. She’s also credited with authoring (or at least editing) the nursery rhyme “Mary’s Lamb,” which we now know as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Hale’s most avid readers no doubt noticed another cause that she often mentioned in her work: the importance of making Thanksgiving a national holiday. As a New Englander, Hale had grown up celebrating Thanksgiving, and she paid homage to it with a scene in her novel Northwood. In addition to roast turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, the feast also featured beef, mutton, goose, duck, and “a huge plum pudding, custards, and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land.” The holiday cropped up in other poems, short stories, and editorials that Hale published over the years, too. “[God] has saved, enlarged, blessed, and prospered us beyond any people on this globe. Should we not be thankful, and keep high holiday of gratitude and gladness in acknowledgment of these national blessings?” she wrote in November 1859.
For Hale, the holiday wasn’t simply about giving thanks to God; it was also about fostering national unity. The country had grown from 13 colonies to around 30 states by the mid-1800s, and Hale saw Thanksgiving as a way to collapse the physical distance between families.
“[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 feast. From the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific border, the telegraph of human happiness would move every heart to gladness simultaneously … ” Hale wrote in an 1851 editorial.
How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday
Eventually, Hale realized that getting all the governors to agree to celebrate Thanksgiving on the same day, which she thought should be the last Thursday in November, might take a presidential proclamation. On September 28, 1863, she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln asking him to issue one. “You may have observed that … there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution,” she wrote [PDF].
Scarcely a week later, Lincoln did issue a proclamation inviting the entire nation to observe Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. We don’t know if Hale’s letter caused him to take immediate action. For one, Lincoln made his declaration on October 3, the anniversary of Washington’s original Thanksgiving proclamation of 1789. Also, the Civil War had ravaged countless families throughout 1863, and it’s possible that Lincoln had already thought a year-end national day of thanks would inspire hope and resilience. The proclamation itself echoes this sentiment, asking people to “implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore … peace, harmony, tranquility, and union” [PDF].
But even if Hale’s one letter didn’t directly bring about a proclamation, her lifelong crusade to promote Thanksgiving in every home definitely helped popularize the holiday. And though she died in 1879—more than 60 years before President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a resolution to make the holiday official—her legacy as the “mother of Thanksgiving” lives on today.