On October 23, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the final Thursday in November as a “Day of Thanksgiving,” and our nation has continuously celebrated this special day as Lincoln prescribed; with the exception of two years when Franklin D. Roosevelt tinkered with tradition by moving Thanksgiving to the third Thursday. It was not well received. Later Congress adopted a resolution making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, as it was in 1863, to avoid confusion in those infrequent years when there are five Thursdays in the month.
Most of us were taught in school that Pilgrims in North America declared a Day of Thanksgiving in 1621 to celebrate their first harvest. Actually, both the Pilgrims in Plymouth and the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay frequently organized special days for prayer to give thanks for welcome events such as the arrival of a new ship, a harvest, and survival of a harsh winter. By the early 1700s individual colonies began declaring a Day of Thanksgiving for various reasons and at various times of the year.
On a national level, in 1777, while the Revolutionary War was still being waged, the members of the Continental Congress were grateful that their rebellion still held promise for independence and they issued a proclamation designating Thursday December 18, as a Day of Solemn Thanksgiving.
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for Thursday, November 26. However, since Washington was meticulously pragmatic and not prone to issue any type of religious or celebratory orders, he began the proclamation with this disclaimer, “Both houses of Congress have requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed.”
Thereafter, a few Presidents and the Governors of several states periodically issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, however none designated a November date.
Enter a determined woman named Sarah Josepha Buell Hale! A well-known editor, novelist, and poet, her most enduring literary contribution to Americana was her poem “Mary’s Lamb,” later titled “Mary’s Little Lamb.” In 1828, Mrs. Hale wrote a popular novel, “Northwood, Life in the North and the South” in which she envisioned a future of regional reconciliation after an end to slavery; this was nearly twenty five years before Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the more impassioned, and more famous, anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Sarah was a strong proponent of women’s education and is known in academia as a founder of Vassar College. But few Americans are aware that, for over thirty years, she used her public persona to lobby individual states and Congress to declare a national Thanksgiving Day and, by 1860, thirty one states had done so; however, she had no success with Congress or with the four Presidents who preceded Lincoln. As editor of the “Godey’s Lady Book” and “The Ladies Magazine,” which combined had the largest paid circulation of any women’s periodicals, she and her readers continued to “encourage” (her word) and “pester” (one recipient’s word) national politicians, including President Lincoln to establish a specific day for Thanksgiving.
Before hearing from Mrs. Hale, Abraham Lincoln, and even Confederate President Jefferson Davis, had issued several Thanksgiving proclamations during the first two years of the War but they were to celebrate a military victory. On the other hand, Sarah Hale wanted a designated day “for all Americans to put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and “to be thankful for the blessings of life, not of war.” She wrote of her hopes in a letter to President Lincoln, which he promptly shared with William Seward, the Secretary of State. After discussing the matter, Lincoln asked Seward to draft a Presidential Proclamation which would include the universal and conciliatory themes that Sarah Hale had proposed. President Lincoln only made a few changes to Seward’s draft which, for the first time, established a fixed date of the last Thursday in November for the national observance. It was signed by Lincoln on October 3, 1863 and the tradition of a national Thanksgiving Day has endured ever since.
Sarah Hale lived a long and productive life and saw her vision become a treasured special day “to be thankful for the blessings of life.” And, as she hoped, it is observed across all lines that, on other matters, may divide us; such as politics, geography, ethnicity, and religion. What a wonderful legacy.
For that we should be grateful to William Seward, Abraham Lincoln, and especially Sarah Josepha Hale.
Have a wonderful, and reflective, Thanksgiving Day.
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