On October 23, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring the final Thursday in November as a “Day of Thanksgiving” and our nation has ever since celebrated this special day.
The country had heard calls for a day of Thanksgiving before. 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. And, in 1789, President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for Thursday, November 26. Thereafter, a few Presidents and the Governors of several states periodically issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, however none designated a recurring November holiday.
Then Sarah Josepha Buell Hale stepped in!
A well-known editor and novelist, she was a strong proponent of women’s education and was a co-founder of Vassar College. But few Americans are aware that, beginning in 1838 and for the next twenty-five years, she used her public visibility to lobby for a national Thanksgiving Day in November. 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 began an annual letter-writing campaign to “encourage” (her word) and “pester” (one recipient’s word) Governors to issue a resolution in their respective states; and they petitioned every sitting President to declare a National Thanksgiving Day. By 1858, while no President had created the special day she requested, every state except Virginia had declared a Day of Thanksgiving.
But, in 1859, two years prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, her progress not only stalled, but began to recede. Politicians in some southern states refused to issue their annual Thanksgiving proclamations, with one referring to the holiday as a “Yankee Abolitionist holiday” and another stating that it was a “National Claptrap” started by northerners to hinder the South’s institutions (meaning slavery). But many families in the South continued to observe a day of thanksgiving, keeping the religious aspects, but eliminating the bountiful table, which was seen as a New England custom. While Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued several proclamations for a day of prayer and thanksgiving; his were not in November and were directed as a celebration of military successes over the Union armies.
Despite the setbacks in the southern states, Mrs. Hale did not give up and three times in consecutive years she petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. She asked that he set aside 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 would have to wait.
Abraham Lincoln had issued two proclamations calling for a day of thanksgiving and reflection, the first in August, 1861 and another in April, 1863. Each proclamation asked the public to set aside time to reflect upon the challenges the country faced and to follow their own religious creed to express hope for peace and gratitude for the blessings bestowed on the nation.
But, neither was in response to Mrs. Hale’s letters.
In August, 1861, after four months of fighting, the awful realities of the Civil War were coming home to roost. Lincoln felt that the people might be comforted by a special day on which the nation as a whole would turn to their religious faith, in whatever forms that may take, to ask for guidance in restoring the forefathers’ vision for the United States. That Presidential proclamation was officially titled The Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day, and read (in part):
“..And, whereas our own beloved country, once by the blessing of God, united, prosperous, and happy, is now afflicted with faction and Civil War, it is particularly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our faults as a nation, and as individuals, to humble ourselves and pray for His mercy, and that the inestimable boon of civil and religious liberty earned by His blessing and the labors and sufferings of our forefathers, may be restored in all its original excellence.” The Proclamation went on to declare a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting and urged “all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and the heads of all families to observe and keep that day according to their creeds and modes of worship.”
A good start, but not quite an official Thanksgiving Day. So, Mrs. Hale sent another letter!
The Emancipation Proclamation had become effective on January 1, 1863, changing forever the context of the Civil War. By April, Lincoln believed that the North would eventually prevail and the Union would be restored; but he held little hope that the War would end soon. He decided to issue another “Thanksgiving” proclamation in April, 1863; however, this one was officially titled “Proclamation for a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” and read (in part):
“It is the duty of nations as well as men, to owe their dependence upon the ruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow. We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. But we have forgotten God. We have vainly imagined that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. I do, by this proclamation, set April 30, 1863 as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. And I do request that all the people abstain that day from their ordinary secular pursuits and to unite at their several places of public worship and in their respective homes, in keeping that day Holy. Let us rest humbly in the hope that the united cry of the nation will be heard on High, and (provide) the restoration of our now divided and suffering country.”
So, Mrs. Hale wrote still another letter, a few months later, but this one finally gave the President pause.
By the fall of 1863, the Civil War was still being fought, but the Union was beginning to see significant victories. Sarah Hale again implored President Abraham Lincoln to designate one day, in November, throughout the entire country, which would be “set aside in perpetuity for prayerful Thanksgiving for the blessings bestowed by the Creator.” Lincoln was persuaded and issued his third “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.” It read (in part):
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies, bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come. In the midst of Civil War of unequaled magnitude and severity, laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has been preserved except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.” Lincoln went on to describe the wealth that was building in the north and advances in bringing in new states from western territories; while still keeping up an aggressive war effort against the Confederacy. But then Lincoln returned to the basic theme of gratitude and Thanksgiving. “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the most gracious gifts of the most High God, who while dealing with us for our sins hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It seems fit and proper that they should solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledge as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens to observe the last Thursday in November as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
With this Presidential proclamation, Sarah Hale saw her vision become a treasured day, which she said, “Would be observed across all lines that, on other matters, may divide us; such as politics, geography, ethnicity, and religion.”
A year later, on October 20, 1864, and without another letter from Mrs. Hale, President Lincoln issued his fourth Thanksgiving Day Proclamation; again, declaring the last Thursday of November as the special day; which read (in part):
“It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs (and providing) to us in his mercy many and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household. He has augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration, while he has opened new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workingmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards. He has been pleased to inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of Civil War into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity. Therefore I set apart the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise (to) offer up penitence and prayers for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land.”
Because of an assassin’s bullet a few months later, this became President Lincoln’s last Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.
After the Civil War ended, the northern bureaucrats, politicians and military leaders, who were in charge of “reconstruction” of the occupied former Confederate states, imposed Thanksgiving Day as a November federal holiday. However, it would take another generation (or two or three in some cases) before the holiday was embraced by families throughout south; and so, Mrs. Hale’s hope for national unity, symbolized in part by a Thanksgiving Day celebrated by all Americans, was deferred. But, time can heal the worst of wounds and, in 1905, a Southern minister, referring to a New England staple, said, “I knew Thanksgiving Day was again ours as well, when, after my prayer, I noticed cranberries on the table.”
Mrs. Hale would have been pleased.
The four Lincoln proclamations were all collaborative efforts with Secretary of State William Seward, who was a devout Episcopalian. Seward’s intonements tended to be more ecclesiastical and flourishing, while Lincoln, who was no less spiritual, tended to use simpler wording. But, the two men trusted each other’s ability to communicate, and their combined prose flows seamlessly as if it was the effort of only one person. Historians still debate which phrases each man may have contributed to the proclamations. In any case, the co-authors left us with elegant, meaningful, and still pertinent, proclamations. Certainly, their calls for humility, unity, and peace seem appropriate today.
Have a wonderful, and reflective, Thanksgiving Day; courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, and of course, Sarah Hale.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org