Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863, with a proclamation that made the last Thursday of November a national day of thanks. But would you believe the person who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” played a major role in setting this precedent? Sarah Josepha Hale was the prominent writer, magazine editor and a strong supporter of female education who is often credited as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
Thanksgiving had long been celebrated in the United States before 1863, but there had not yet been a national day set aside as commemoration. Many of us have heard that the common mythology that the first “Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621. For years, many Americans had celebrated their own version of the holiday, but it was often a religious event rather than a stable annual gathering. An increasing interest in a national holiday grew in the mid-19thcentury, but the holiday was much more sporadic. States celebrated the tradition anywhere from October to January, and it remained largely unobserved in the South.
Sarah Josepha Buell was born in 1788 to Captain Gordon Buell, a Revolutionary War officer, and Martha Whittlesay Buell, both of whom believed in the right to equal education for women and made sure their daughter was well-read. Hale married in 1813 but became a widow nine years later, left to care for five children on her own. She supported them with her passion for writing, establishing a literary reputation before becoming editor of the Ladies Magazine, which would become renamed as the popular Godey’s Ladies’ Book ten years later.
Hale believed that there were “too few holidays” and that there was a need for a national holiday that would allow people to set their differences aside and bring families together. For nearly 17 years, beginning in 1846, Sarah Hale wrote editorials urging readers to seek support for this idea. She wrote to five different presidents on the matter: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and, finally, Abraham Lincoln. While her first attempts at establishing this holiday were unsuccessful, about a week after receiving Hale’s letter, Lincoln appointed Secretary of State William Seward to draft a proclamation which Lincoln hoped would bring people together and “heal the wounds of the nation.”