Americans generally think that the Pilgrims are responsible for Thanksgiving Day. Truth is , while Thanksgiving was (as written previously in this blog) a celebration shared by many countries, and for various reasons, two hundred years after the Pilgrims landed, Thanksgiving was generally forgotten, just another day of canning and preparing for the long, hard winter, especially in the northern most areas of Revolutionary America.
Sarah was born in Newport, New Hampshire in 1788, only a few years after Britain surrendered its colonies to the fledging leaders, and grew up listening to her father’s tales of the Revolutionary War where he was wounded and disabled as a Captain. These tales were to make a deep impression on Sarah later, and was responsible for her commitment to National Unity.
Her parents were progressive thinkers, believing that education was important for both men and women, and to start that education at a young age. Sarah was home schooled, as most young people were then, along with her older brother who eventually went to Dartmouth. She became a schoolteacher, met her husband David Hale and married in 1813. They had five children in nine years, and when her husband died in 1822, Sarah wore black for the rest of her life, out of respect for him.
But this was only the beginning of the story that is Sarah Hale, widow and single mother of five.
Left with no husband and no income, Sarah began to write. She soon published a book of poems, and her book, “A New England Tale in London” was ground breaking, being the first American voice to speak out against slavery publicly. It was soon discovered by Reverend John Blake who, at the time, had started a new journal called “Ladies Magazine”. He immediately asked her to pack up her children and move to Boston to become his editor, another first for progressive thinkers of the time. Editing, and even writing such studious material, was thought of as a man’s profession, and certainly not one for a young mother of five children. Hale accepted, since it served to advocate her main goal, the education of women that was often ignored. Female education was just not looked upon as important. Even prosperous families refused to spend money to send their girls to school resulting in most women being semi- or fully illiterate. Sarah wanted to change that, saying “…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.” It was in 1830 that Sarah published the poem that children around the world first learned as young children, originally titled “Mary’s Lamb”, based on an incident she had witnessed as a teacher years ago, and which, of course, later became known as “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
When “Ladies Magazine” was bought out and the assets and personnel combined with “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, Sarah was absorbed with them. Again, she was kept as editor, and she stayed there for forty more years in that position, eventually becoming one of the most “influential people concerning women’s rights and tastes” in America.
In addition to women’s educational rights, in her capacity as editor, she was able to also lobby for employment for women, Unions, and various preservation projects including Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington. She was also co-founder of Vassar College.
But all of this paled in comparison for her initial goal in life, and one that was the hardest won. From early on in her life, she strove to make Thanksgiving a National observance. Individual states had various dates that they observed this feast, if they observed it at all. Very few Americans, in fact, even remembered the event two hundred years previously that sparked it. Sarah Hale wanted it to become a holiday that unified a country.
Thus, the campaign of a National Day of observance was a lifelong endeavor for her. From day one of her career, she wrote letters and editorial articles, pushing for this goal. When that failed, she went right to the top; the Presidential offices.
Consistently, and with each new President, the answer was an emphatic “No!” From Taylor, to Fillmore, to Pierce, to Buchanan, all the same answers. They just didn’t feel it was important enough to consider passing any bill for a National Holiday of Thanksgiving. It was barely even remembered.
Until the Civil War broke out. Even the states that sporadically celebrated a minor version of it stopped celebrating. So far, Sarah had been working on the campaign for more than thirty-five years. Then Abraham Lincoln was elected, hostilities broke out, and Sarah saw this holiday as more important than ever, though it also looked more hopeless than ever, with brother fighting brother and a nation torn in two. How on earth can one forgotten event in a far distant past be the unifying element for a country?
Once again, Sarah, despite all the odds, wrote her usual letter to the new president elect, but this time the answer, unbelievingly, was an emphatic “Yes!” Apparently, it was her second to last line in the letter that influenced Lincoln; “A Holiday would not stop the War, but it could help bring the Country together.”
It still took time, but finally in 1863, Lincoln passed the Bill that made Thanksgiving a national holiday, and one consistent day that the whole country would observe in November. Not only that, but Sarah and Lincoln together brought back the Harvest Feast celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, the original event behind it. True, a lot of modern variations exist nowadays, being added as time went on, but the initial idea still holds strong, brought back to remembrance by a very rare woman, and a progressive thinking President in the midst of chaos and conflict.
You can thank Sarah Hale for this American National Holiday of Thanksgiving; a persistent widow woman and single mother who did not even have the right to vote, and prolific writer of more than 50 volumes of work by the time she retired at age eighty-nine years.