America's Thanksgiving holiday is credited to the Pilgrims. The truth is, we have a national celebration thanks to Sarah Hale's 38-year letter writing campaign.
In Hale's day—two hundred years after the pilgrims arrived —Thanksgiving had been mostly forgotten. Hale wanted Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, and she started a campaign in 1825 to bring it to pass.
Sarah Hale's Early Life
Sarah Josepha Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire, in 1788. Her father, disabled Revolutionary War Captain Gordon Buell, and her mother, Martha Whittlesay Buell, believed in equal education for both sexes. Hale was educated at home by her mother, and by her brother Horatio, who taught her what he'd learned at Dartmouth. Hale continued her education as an autodidact.
According to Laurie Halse Anderson in her childrens' book Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, Hale grew up listening to her father's Revolutionary War stories. They made a deep impression on Hale, setting the stage for her commitment to the American Union.
In 1811, Hale's father opened The Rising Sun tavern in Newport. At that time, Hale was working as a schoolteacher. She met her eventual husband David, a lawyer, and they were married in her father's tavern on October 23, 1813.
The Hales had five children between 1815 and 1822. David died in 1822, and Hale wore black the rest of her life to mourn his death.
Hale Begins to Write
Hale began to write to support her young family, publishing her first book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion, in 1823. Her novel Northwood: Life North and South, subtitled A New England Tale in London, made her one of the first Americans to write in opposition of slavery. The novel was praised by Reverend John Blake, who asked Hale to move to Boston and serve as editor of his journal Ladies Magazine. Hale accepted and served as "editress," her preferred title, from 1828 until 1836. Her goal was to help educate women. In the book Boston Women's Heritage Trail Hale wrote that a woman's, "first right is to education in its widest sense, to such education as will give her the full development of all her personal, mental and moral qualities."
In 1830 Hale published Poems for Children, a collection that included the now famous "Mary Had A Little Lamb," which was originally titled "Mary's Lamb." The poem is based on an event that occurred while Hale was working as a school teacher.
Louis Antoine Godey bought Ladies Magazine and merged it with Godey's Lady's Book in 1837. He brought Hale on as editor, a position she held for 40 years. According to Ann Douglas in her book The Feminization of American Culture, "During this time she [Hale] became one of the most important and influential arbiters of American taste."
Hale's advocacies included education, especially higher education for women, employment for women, the American Union, and the preservation of Mt. Vernon, George Washington's home. She helped found Vassar College, and she raised money for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston.
Campaigning for a National Day of Thanksgiving
Hale used her editorial position to garner support for a Thanksgiving Day. Individual states began to declare their own Thanksgiving holidays. But Hale remembered her father's stories, and she had a bigger goal. She wanted the entire country to celebrate Thanksgiving together, on the same day. She continued her articles and letter writing campaigns. Then she went to the top. She wrote to the President of the United States. But Zachary Taylor said, "No."
So Hale wrote to the next president, Millard Fillmore. He also said, "No." Hale continued her state-by-state campaign until a new president came to office. She wrote to President Franklin Pierce. She received another no. Then it was President James Buchanan. No.
President Abraham Lincoln Agrees
By now America was at war, North against South. Some states that had instituted a day of Thanksgiving were no longer holding the celebration. Hale had been working on this project for more than 35 years, and it looked more hopeless than ever. According to the Hale's biographer Anderson, "She [Hale] picked up her mighty pen and wrote another letter; this time to President Abraham Lincoln. America needed Thanksgiving, now more than ever, Hale argued. "A holiday wouldn't stop the war, but it could help bring the country together." Abraham Lincoln agreed.
In 1863, Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. And it has been a national holiday in November ever since.
Thanksgiving Thanks Owed to Sarah Hale
The Thanksgiving we celebrate today is based on the Harvest Feast celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, with modern touches added in through the decades. For example, football was first played on Thanksgiving Day in the 1870's, and the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was held in 1924. But we'd have none of this but for the perseverance of a woman who did not even have the right to vote.
Hale retired from her editorial duties in 1877 at age 89. That same year, Thomas Edison made his first recording on his newly invented phonograph, speaking the opening lines of Hale's poem "Mary's Lamb."
Hale died at her home in Philadelphia on April 30, 1879, and was buried in a simple grave in that city's Laurel Hill Cemetery. She published some 50 volumes of work by the end of her life. And her persistent pen had brought generations of Americans the annual national holiday known as Thanksgiving.