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Sarah Hale's Letter to Lincoln Saved Thanksgiving

Sarah Hale's 38-year letter writing campaign assured Thanksgiving Day for our nation.

America's Thanksgiving Day holiday is credited to the Pilgrims. The truth is, we have a national celebration thanks to Sarah Hale's 38-year letter writing campaign.

Hale wanted Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, and she started a campaign in 1825 to bring it to pass. In Hale's day—two hundred years after the pilgrim's arrival—Thanksgiving had been mostly forgotten.

Sarah Josepha Hale was born in Newport, N.H., in 1788.  Her father, disabled Revolutionary War Captain Gordon Buell, and her mother, Martha Whittlesay Buell, believed in equal education for both sexes.

According to Laurie Halse Anderson's 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.

When Hale's husband died, she began writing to support her young family. Her work caught the attention of Rev. John Blake, who asked Hale to move to Boston and serve as editor of his journal Ladies Magazine. When in 1837 Louis Antoine Godey bought Ladies Magazine and merged it with Godey's Lady's Book he brought Hale on as editor. It was a position she held for 40 years.

Hale's advocacies included education, especially higher education and employment for women.  Hale wrote in the book "Boston Women's Heritage Trail" 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."  She lived what she believed.

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. 

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 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 declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. And it has been a national holiday in November ever since. 

The Thanksgiving we celebrate today is based on the Harvest Feast celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, with modern touches added 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. 

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 "Mary's Lamb," a poem Hale had written in 1830.  The now famous "Mary Had A Little Lamb," was based on an event that occurred while Hale was working as a school teacher.

Hale died at her home in Philadelphia on April 30, 1879. 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. 

Editor's Note: The information in this story is from the picture book "Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving," by Laurie Halse Anderson and from personal research conducted at the Bunker Hill Museum in Boston, which features an exhibit about Sarah Hale.

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Bob Ashdown November 22, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Terrific story! Thank you for publishing it!

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