The First Person

Giving Thanks for Sarah Josepha Hale

Without the efforts of the influential nineteenth-century editor, writer, and abolitionist, Thanksgiving as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Sarah Josepha Hale. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Sarah Josepha Hale. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Americans sit down to their turkey dinners this Thursday, a long-ago lady editor will be an invisible presence at every table. In the history of Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Hale, “editress” of the popular 19th-century magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, played as important a role as the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in shaping the holiday that the U.S. has been celebrating in various forms for 400 years.

Hale’s contribution was transforming Thanksgiving from a jumble of local events marked on various dates into the shared national celebration we know today. Four presidents rejected her proposal before Abraham Lincoln took it up in 1863, proclaiming the first in what has become an unbroken series of national Thanksgivings up to the present day. The story of how Hale helped recreate Thanksgiving as a national holiday is a classic American saga of how one enterprising, hardworking individual with a good idea can have an impact in an open, democratic society.

Hale’s name won’t be found in many books of U.S. history. Nor is it on standard lists of the country’s great editors or trailblazing feminists, though she was both. When her name comes up, it is usually in the context of her role as godmother of Thanksgiving or as the author of the children’s poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But her accomplishments extend well beyond either of those achievements. Hale was the most influential woman of her day and one the most influential in American history. She was an author, editor, social reformer and, above all, a relentless advocate of women’s advancement, especially the right to an education. Women were the intellectual equals of men, she believed, countering the conventional wisdom of the day. The difference, she believed, was that men, unlike women, had the benefit of an education. When she began her editorial career in 1828, half of American women were illiterate and no institution of higher education admitted women.

A partial list of Hale’s achievements on behalf of women includes leading the fight for property rights for married women, campaigning for women to become public school teachers, encouraging the establishment of colleges for women, supporting medical-school education for women, creating the first day care center for small children and the first public playground, and founding a society dedicated to increasing the wages of working women. She invented the term “domestic science” as part of her effort to elevate the status of women who worked in the home.

As a member of the post-Revolution generation, born in 1788, Hale brought a deeply patriotic sensibility to her magazine. She believed that even though the 13 former British colonies had won their war for independence, they would not be truly unified until the new nation developed its own cultural identity, one that was distinct from that of its former Colonial masters.

At Godey’s Lady’s Book, she set out to publish American authors writing on American topics. From the perspective of the 21st century, Hale’s approach doesn’t seem in the least surprising. Surely Americans want to read about their country. But it was a radical idea in the 1820s, when magazines typically reprinted articles they had pirated from British and other publications.

Hale believed there was a market for a national women’s magazine that focused on American culture, and she published such notable American authors as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, among many others. Hale herself was one of the first women to earn a living by her pen. According to the Yale Bibliography of American Literature, she wrote, edited or contributed to an astonishing 129 books. That was in addition to the poetry, short stories, book reviews and editorials that she wrote for her magazine every month.

Hale’s interest in American culture extended to everyday aspects of life — food, fashion, manners, health, running a household. Her work was instrumental in establishing a common national aesthetic. Thanks in part to Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the first magazines to circulate nationwide, Americans in every part of the expanding country were quoting the same poetry, cooking the same recipes and sewing the same fashions. In the 1840s, she introduced the white wedding gown and the Christmas tree to this country, customs that continue to flourish today.

Readers were also devouring Hale’s essays and editorials on what it meant to be a woman in America. Hale’s greatest, and most lasting legacy, was how she used her magazine to reshape the way Americans thought about women and their roles.

Thanksgiving Day, a homegrown holiday, fit into Hale’s journalistic mission of helping the new country develop a common culture. While many states and territories observed Thanksgiving, these were celebrated locally, not by all Americans. The date for Thanksgiving Day was set by individual governors, who sometimes coordinated but often didn’t — and some years didn’t even name a Thanksgiving Day. The result was that while most state Thanksgivings took place in November, a few occurred in September, October or even early December.

Hale’s vision of a national Thanksgiving Day was multifaceted. She envisioned it as a patriotic holiday along with the Fourth of July and Washington’s Birthday, the only other holidays born of the American experience that were celebrated nationwide. An additional selling point was that while Thanksgiving took place in the autumn, Independence Day fell in the summer and Washington’s Birthday — Feb. 22 — was a winter holiday. This was a trivial consideration, to be sure, but Hale cited it to build support for her proposal. She also applauded the fact that a late-November Thanksgiving meant that the “war of politics” — that is, elections — ”will be over for the year.”

As a religious matter, Hale saw Thanksgiving as embodying a founding principle of the United States: freedom of worship. Although she sometimes referred to the day as a Christian tradition, she recognized that Thanksgiving was open to people of all faiths. She was intrigued by the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, and often cited it as one of the roots of the American holiday.

For Hale, Thanksgiving, with its emphasis on family reunions and a grand meal, fell into the feminine sphere. Thanksgiving reflected, too, what she saw as the generous spirit of the American people and she encouraged readers to remember the needy on the holiday.

Hale campaigned both publicly and privately for a national Thanksgiving Day. The public part of her work unfolded in the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book in a series of articles published between 1847 and 1863. The Lady’s Book, with its tens of thousands of readers nationwide, was a powerful platform, and she used its pages to build a consensus for her proposal. Her readers were located in every state and territory. Hale understood that if they got behind her call for a national Thanksgiving, politicians would likely pay heed.

She built support for her idea by publishing fiction and poems set around Thanksgiving Day. She promoted her campaign, too, by publishing recipes for traditional Thanksgiving dishes such as roast turkey and pumpkin pie in her popular “Receipts & etc.” column. (She was the first editor to publish a recipe section.) Her vision for a national Thanksgiving wasn’t based on a desire to see Americans feast on the same foods on the same day, but she was realistic enough to know that the culinary appeal of Thanksgiving dinner was another selling point for her vision of a shared celebration. She understood, too, that just as breaking bread together is a unifying experience for family or friends, it could serve the same purpose on a national scale. For Hale, the celebration of Thanksgiving by the entire American family would help knit the country together as a nation.

Most importantly, Hale viewed Thanksgiving as exerting a “deep moral influence” on America’s national character. This theme would recur again and again in Hale’s editorials, especially as the country moved toward civil war. She believed a national celebration of Thanksgiving Day would help preserve the union. “Such social rejoicings,” she editorialized in 1857, “strengthen the bond of union that finds us brothers and sisters in that true sympathy of American patriotism.”

In 1860, as war loomed, she pressed this argument, writing that a national Thanksgiving could bind together the country, which was divided over the issue of slavery. “This year the last Thursday of November falls on the 29th,” she wrote. “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 political union of the States?”

At the same time she was promoting Thanksgiving in the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale undertook a private letter-writing campaign to generate support for her idea. She wrote hundreds of letters to presidents, governors, congressmen and other influential Americans soliciting their backing for a national Thanksgiving. Such was her influence and celebrity that many of her correspondents wrote back — both pro and con. Most governors were supportive. An exception was the governor of Virginia, where Gov. Henry Wise, a slaveholder, refused to have any part of her proposal. Writing in 1856, Wise heatedly informed Hale that his state would not be signing on to the “theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving.” The holiday was “aiding the antislavery movement,” he complained, as Northern ministers used Thanksgiving as an opportunity to preach against slavery.

Hale also petitioned the men in the White House. Presidents Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan all declined to call a national Thanksgiving on the grounds that the Constitution didn’t give them the authority to do so. That, they argued, was the prerogative of governors.

Finally, in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln responded positively to Hale’s call. Five days after receiving her letter inviting him to establish the “great Union Festival of America,” the president issued his proclamation naming a Thanksgiving Day for the last Thursday of November.

Lincoln’s proclamation, dated Oct. 3, 1863, was issued just three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, where the Union lost 27% of its fighting men and the Confederacy lost 37%. Death, suffering and grief were ever-present. Yet in his proclamation, Lincoln catalogued the blessings for which Americans could be grateful: peace with foreign nations, expanding borders, a growing population, farms, mines and industry that were producing well. Lincoln was reminding Americans, North and South, that the war would eventually end. He was asking them to look beyond the current horrors to a better day, when the country “is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.” It was a profoundly hopeful message, reminding the American people of the nation’s capacity for renewal.

In 1864, Lincoln issued another Thanksgiving proclamation, again naming the last Thursday of November as the date of the national holiday. After Lincoln’s death, Hale didn’t let up on her Thanksgiving campaign. She successfully lobbied Presidents Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, all of whom followed Lincoln’s lead.

But there remained a snag. While the overwhelming majority of governors went along with the date that presidents named for Thanksgiving and issued their own state proclamations conforming to it, they were under no obligation to do so. The presidents’ proclamations did not have the force of law outside the District of Columbia and the territories. For that, it would need an act of Congress that was signed into law by the president.

In 1941, Congress finally took action, passing a resolution naming the fourth Thursday of November as the annual date of Thanksgiving. President Franklin Roosevelt signed it on Dec. 26, and it took effect in 1942. Ninety-five years after Hale launched her editorial campaign for a national Thanksgiving, the holiday was finally official. This Thursday, Americans will gather with family and friends to mark the 159th celebration of our national Thanksgiving Day. For that, we can say, Thank you, Sarah Josepha Hale.

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