Sarah Josepha Hale is a name largely lost to history.
Of course her poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is not. Thomas Edison recited the poem in his first-ever recording. Lack of compelling audio material aside, Edison is remembered. But not Hale.
Let us take a moment, on this Thanksgiving Day, to remember her. Because if not for her editorials and letter-writing campaign to President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and four previous presidents, you might not be sitting down to an afternoon of turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and the NFL with your brother-in-law, who may have had one too many Bud Lights.
Hale was a prolific writer and social arbiter of her era. She was born in 1788, a year before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and died 14 years after the end of the Civil War. She was also one of the founders of Vassar College. For 40 years, Hale was editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which you can’t subscribe to now unless you have a time-travel app we don’t know about. But in its time, Godey’s Lady’s Book and Sarah Josepha Hale were very influential. She published voluminous numbers of articles, poems and columns, including many editorials supporting the idea of a national day of thanksgiving.
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A letter to Lincoln from Hale read, in part: “You may have observed that, for some years past, 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 authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”
Note no mention of the inebriated brother-in-law hogging the remote, but we digress.
In the midst of the Civil War, a nation divided and weary of catastrophic conflict, President Lincoln granted her request.
In a proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863, he wrote: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands to set apart and observe the first Thursday in November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Lincoln also added the phrase “…with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” which certainly is a fitting description of American political discourse today.
Of course, the U.S. and other parts of the world had celebrated some sort of autumnal harvest festival or another before that day. We are all familiar with the Pilgrim/Native American catechism of our youth: smiling turkeys facing execution, comically large blunderbusses and English settlers chowing down with native people who should have signed a pre-nup.
And, if you have a minute between the sweet yams and the dark meat, the gravy and the mashed potatoes, give thanks for Sarah Josepha Hale and her campaign for Thanksgiving. After all, editorial writers don’t get usually get any credit.