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How Newport's 'Mother Of Thanksgiving' Got Her Holiday Wish

Oil painting by James R. Lambdin

Thanksgiving before 1863 was something of a moveable feast, with states honoring the holiday at various times or not at all. But as the Civil War dragged on, Abraham Lincoln needed a way to unite the country. It was a prominent magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who finally persuaded him to declare a national holiday.

Hale, born 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire, was a prolific writer. She authored biographies, cookbooks, novels, editorials, and volumes of poetry, including the children’s rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb.

She would use that same pen to crusade for her other lasting legacy, a national Thanksgiving.

“The last Thursday of November has these advantages: harvests of all kinds are gathered in -- summer travelers have returned to their homes -- the diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some portions of our country, have ceased, and all are prepared to enjoy a day of Thanksgiving,” wrote Hale.

The holiday wasn’t her only interest. As editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most widely read magazines of the pre-Civil War era, she had the perfect soapbox for other causes.

Hale called on women to cook nutritious meals and run a sanitary, well-decorated household. She published the works of writers like Longfellow, Hawthorne and Poe. And she championed education for girls, though New Hampshire historian Stu Wallace says Hale stopped short of campaigning for women’s equality.

“She often would say, ‘Well, it is a degrading idea that women should be more like men.’ She said that is an absurd idea,” says Wallace.

“It’s as if you are equating the beauty of porcelain to the strength of iron.”

For Hale, it was always Thanksgiving that required the most strength and dedication.

Her handwritten letters landed on the desks of Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, all to no avail.

On September 28th, 1863, she wrote her last presidential note on the topic to Lincoln.

“Sir, Permit me, as Editress of the ‘Lady's Book’, to request a few minutes of your precious time.”

Her letter went on, “It now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

Wallace said the letter arrived at the right time, just months after the horror of Gettysburg.

Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR
Sharon Wood of Claremont, N.H. portrays Sarah Josepha Hale during the dedication of a new monument in Newport, N.H. last week.

“We had slaughtered ourselves in unknown numbers. The nation had divided itself terribly. And so, Lincoln himself was looking for something to bring us back together again.”

Sarah Josepha Hale got her wish after 150 years. Lincoln proclaimed that Americans should observe the last Thursday of November, 1863, as a day to heal the wounds of a nation.

After decades of work, the table was finally set.

“From Maine to Mexico, from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea,” Hale wrote, “the hymn of Thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised.” 

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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