Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Honest Abe, Godey's Lady's Book and the Birth of Modern-day Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, we thought it would be fitting to explore the birth of the modern Thanksgiving Day holiday, as it involves two rather prominent Americans from the Gone with the Wind era--Sarah Josepha Hale, the influential editor of Godey's Lady's Book and President Abraham Lincoln, who of course needs no introduction. Those of you who are familiar with American Thanksgiving lore will perhaps already know this story, but since it's a lovely story, we hope you'll indulge us in sharing it for the benefit of all our readers. 

Anyways, let's get started. While Thanksgiving celebrations had been part of the American fabric since long before the War of Independence (thanks to that famous story about the Pilgrims and Indians), the holiday wasn't celebrated with any kind of uniformity. Some states and territories held independent Thanksgiving celebrations at different points throughout the autumn months, while others didn't recognize the holiday at all. For many years, Thanksgiving was celebrated only in New England. It was virtually unknown in other parts of the country, including the South. 

But Sarah Josepha Hale set out to change all that. Her mission was to make Thanksgiving Day a nationally recognized holiday, one that would be celebrated in every corner of the United States. A staunch believer in American unity, the cause of a national Thanksgiving resonated deeply with the patriotic Hale. And she had the perfect platform by which to begin her campaign: the venerable Godey's Lady's Book.

Hale had served as the editor of Godey's Lady's Book long before it was even known by the name that would make it famous. In 1828, she came on board as the editor of Ladies' Magazine, following literary success as a poet and novelist. In 1837, Louis Antoine Godey purchased Ladies' American Magazine (as it had been renamed) and merged it with his existing publication, Godey's Lady's Book. Under Hale's skillful leadership, Godey's Lady's Book flourished. By mid century, it had become not only a coveted resource for fashion, but a veritable force in American culture, literature, politics and etiquette.

Nowhere can this be seen more than in Hale's campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. January 1847 saw her first editorial in support of a unified Thanksgiving holiday:
"Our holidays. We have but two that we can call entirely national. The New Year is a holiday to all the world, and Christmas to all Christians— but the 'Fourth of July' and 'Thanksgiving Day' can only be enjoyed by Americans. The annual observance of Thanksgiving Day was, to be sure, mostly confined to the New England States, till within a few years. We are glad to see that this good old puritan custom is becoming popular throughout the Union. The past year saw it celebrated in twenty-one or two of the States. It was holden on the same day, November 26th, in seventeen, we believe. Would that the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day. Then, though the members of time same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that all were enjoying the blessings of the day."
--Godey's Lady's Book, January 1847
From there, she did not let up. Year after year, editorials penned by Hale in support of a unified and nationally celebrated Thanksgiving became common place in the pages of Godey's. She favored holding the holiday on the fourth Thursday in November, harkening back to George Washington's original proclamation that declared November 26, 1789 to be a national "day of publick thanksgiving and prayer."

Each fall season, Godey's would even list running tallies of which states held Thanksgiving celebrations and on which dates these celebrations were observed. The September 1856 issue, for instance, records with delight that 14 states, including Scarlett O'Hara's home state of Georgia, had celebrated the holiday on Thursday November 29th, 1855, while six other states had held celebrations earlier that month and several more earlier that fall.  As a result of Hale's dogged advocacy, the tally lists in Godey's continued to grow as more and states began to adopt Thanksgiving celebrations.

But this wasn't quite enough for Hale. She still wanted a recognized national holiday. So she flooded government officials with letters in support of a national Thanksgiving celebration, personally reaching out to state and territories governors, missionaries, military personnel, diplomats and numerous others. She also directly appealed to the highest official in the land, writing to no less than four Presidents--Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan--before she was finally successful in persuading the fifth: Abraham Lincoln.

On September 23, 1863, Hale wrote to President Lincoln to state the case for a national Thanksgiving holiday, which is excerpted below. (You can also check out the Library of Congress to see the complete letter text and an scanned copy of the original letter.)

"Permit me, as Editress of the 'Lady's Book', to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and -- as I trust -- even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

"You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution...

"But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid -- that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; -- or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has ocurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment."
--Letter of Sarah Josepha Hale to President Abraham Lincoln, Sept. 23, 1863
Lincoln readily agreed, recognizing that a national holiday of Thanksgiving would serve as a way to rejuvenate and rally the spirits of a nation torn asunder by the protracted Civil War. And so on Oct. 3, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale's long-held dream was at last realized as President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the fourth Thursday in November to henceforth become a day of thanksgiving, giving rise to the modern Thanksgiving holiday that's been observed for close to 150 years now.   

And if you're looking for more Thanksgiving insights, be sure to check out this tremendous video from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities about Sarah Josepha Hale's role in shaping Thanksgiving traditions, including a special mention about Thanksgiving in the South. 


  1. What a great post! Happy Thanksgiving to you!

  2. Thanks! And a very Happy Thanksgiving to you too!


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