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Sarah Josepha Hale: The Godmother of Thanksgiving

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 21, 2023 3:02 am

Sarah Josepha Hale: The Godmother of Thanksgiving

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 21, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, "If you planned your itinerary carefully, you could have a good Thanksgiving dinner every day between Election Day and Christmas Day." That all changed when a songwriter worked long and hard to crystallize American culture as distinct from that of Britain - including by a new official holiday.

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But we have her to thank for a couple of days off each year. You see, Hale was nearly single-handedly responsible for Thanksgiving becoming a national holiday. Here is Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Sarah Josepha Hale's biography, called Lady Editor, to share with us the story of the godmother of Thanksgiving. Sarah Josepha Hale is not very well known in our century, but she was the most famous woman of the 19th century, or at least the first part of the 19th century. She was editor of Godey's Lady's Book, which was one of the first national magazines.

It had a huge circulation. But more than that, she used the magazine to promote ideas that were close to her heart. She wrote, or edited, 129 books.

Can you imagine this? She did write something that you probably have heard of, and it's Mary Had a Little Lamb. It was published in a magazine for children. So she wrote it, and it became popular, and it was picked up by a man named Lowell Mason, who edited and put together the first song book for school children. In the early 1820s, she was happily married with four children, and a fifth on the way, when her husband died suddenly. She had no means of making a living, and was desperate to figure out a way to earn enough money to both take care of her children and educate them in the way to which she and her husband had aspired. Hale herself was one of the most highly educated women of the early 19th century. This was a period where there were no colleges, no institutes of higher education, not a single one, that accepted women. But Hale's family put a high premium on educating both their sons and their daughters. The kids were educated at home by their mother, homeschooled. And then when her brother Horatio went off to college at Dartmouth, Hale couldn't go with him, which was, I imagine, a big disappointment for her.

But Horatio would come home on the holidays and teach Hale everything he had learned at Dartmouth. So, in effect, she had the equivalent of a college education. In 1827, she published a novel called Northwood. It was an anti-slavery novel, more than 20 years before Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Town's Cabin. And it had one chapter that described a New England Thanksgiving. The large table was set forth and covered with a cloth as white as snow. Love, warm-hearted love, supplied the place of cold duty. The supper consisted of every luxury the season afforded. First came fried chicken floating in gravy, then broiled ham, wheat bread as white as snow, and butter so yellow and sweet. Our people do not need compulsion to support the gospel, but to return to our Thanksgiving festival.

When it shall be observed on the same day throughout all the state and territories, it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness, such as the world has never yet witnessed. She became an editor in 1828. She had written and published several poems and had gotten the attention of editors in Boston, including a man, a clergyman, who was about to start a magazine for women. And he wrote to her out of the blue, asking her to be editor of this magazine. Eventually, Mr. Louis Godey from Philadelphia, who had a magazine that was not so successful, decided that he wanted her as his editor. The magazine was eventually retitled Godey's Lady's Book, which became the most popular, the most widely circulated magazine of the pre-Civil War era, thanks to Hale's editorship. She would use her magazine to develop ideas that were important to her. The other big issue that captured her attention, American culture.

As a member of the revolutionary generation, she was born in 1788, she believed that the revolution had unified the country politically, but not culturally, that we still looked toward Britain and toward Europe for our cultural norms. She is probably most famous of all for being the so-called godmother of Thanksgiving. You may ask, didn't we have Thanksgivings before Lincoln?

It went back an awful long time. And George Washington, for example, his first act as president was to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. So the answer is yes, but the Thanksgivings before Hale were celebrated at all different times of the year, and they were called by governors. There was no unified date for Thanksgiving. It could be celebrated any time between September and December. There's a funny saying in the first half of the 19th century that if you planned your itinerary carefully enough, you could have a good Thanksgiving dinner every week between Election Day and Christmas Day.

Some states didn't have Thanksgivings at all. Hale's idea was that Thanksgiving could be a unifying force in American life, an idea that she pushed, especially as the country moved toward Civil War. The importance of this third holiday to the Union and the happiness of those who enjoy it can hardly be overestimated. The influence of its family reunion, its generous beneficence to the poor, its public acknowledgement to the divine being who shapes the destiny of nations.

All these combine to strengthen, to ennoble, and to purify the character of our Republican government. She also saw it as a patriotic holiday, and she would write about how we had two national holidays, Washington's birthday on February 22, and of course the Fourth of July in the summer. Christmas Day was not declared a national holiday until the 1870s. We now have but two days set apart for popular rejoicing. The 22nd of February is the day of national patriotism, Washington's birthday.

The Fourth of July is the jubilee of national independence. Let the last Thursday in November be consecrated by gratitude to God for his wonderful blessings on our people. We shall then have three American festivals, which our own citizens, wherever they might be, would observe with pride, joy, and thankfulness. So she pushed the idea of Thanksgiving as both a unifying force, but also a way for Americans to step back and consider their blessings. She did this in the pages of Godey's Lady's Book, and starting in 1847, she started her campaign for a National Thanksgiving Day. The last Thursday of November should be the day of National Thanksgiving for the American people.

Let this day, from this time forth as long as our banner of stars floats on the breeze, be the grand Thanksgiving holiday of our nation. And you've been listening to Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Sarah Josepha Hale's biography, called Lady Editor. And what a story you've been hearing.

A bit of cultural history, too. But we have her to thank for a couple of days off each year. Here's this remarkable lady who's got remarkable talents.

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Let's pick up where we last left off. Sarah Josepha Hale had a private letter writing campaign. She would write to every governor, and she would write to congressmen, urging them to support a campaign for a national Thanksgiving day. She would even write to the president. Her fame and her influence was such that the presidents responded to her. And prior to Lincoln, she had rejections from the presidents she wrote to. They, to a man, said, we like the idea of a national Thanksgiving, but the Constitution doesn't permit the president to call a national Thanksgiving.

That's the job of the governor. There was also a concern about it being a religious holiday and therefore inappropriate for the president to get involved with. One of the most eloquent letters that she received was from President Millard Fillmore, who made these arguments in a clear way, while at the same time praising Hale for her idea and saying he could support it. Millard Fillmore, Washington, November 13th, 1852, yours of the 11th came to hand this morning in which you urged the propriety of my recommending to Congress to fix some day of national Thanksgiving.

But I apprehend that Congress would hardly deem this an appropriate subject for legislation, and custom has sanctioned the practice of doing it by states and not by the national government. Another person who wrote back to her is Henry Wise, the governor of Virginia in the 1850s. He was pro-slavery, and he thought that Thanksgiving was a damned Yankee holiday. And he objected to Thanksgiving Day because preachers in New England would get into the pulpits and inveigh against slavery, and he considered that an inappropriate use of their role as preachers. Governor Henry Wise, Richmond, Virginia, September 24th, 1856, Madam, never was there a time when this nation mourned of the efficacy of prayer against some of the preaching and practices of some of the churches which professed to be Christian than at this critical period of imminent peril. We recognize Christianity in every form of state except in any form of worship.

That is left to the people, freely to be exercised without any interference by the state. In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, not long after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, she wrote to Lincoln encouraging him to call it a national day of Thanksgiving. From Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, September 28th, 1863.

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 authoritative fixation only to become permanently an American custom and institution. For the last 15 years, I have set forth this idea in the lady's book and placed the papers before the governors of all the states and territories. I have received uniformly the most kind approval that each state should, by statute, make it obligatory on the governor to appoint the last Thursday of November annually as Thanksgiving Day.

A proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest, and most fitting method of national appointment. Thus, the great union festival of America would be established. Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his proclamation appointing the last Thursday in November as the national Thanksgiving for all. Lincoln's role here was to create a national holiday.

Thanksgivings had been celebrated in this country since before the pilgrims and the Indians. I think the proclamation is astonishing in one way. Remember, this is the middle of the Civil War.

The Battle of Gettysburg had just taken place where tens of thousands of Americans on both sides had died or been wounded. He opens by talking about our beautiful country and the blessings of our country. And then he moves on to how we need to give thanks to our creator, for our country, and its blessings. And he doesn't dwell on the war in any way. He's looking forward to a time when the war will end and the country will be reunified.

He made no reference to victories or losses or rebels or enemies. Instead, he spoke of the whole American people. And he called on every American to celebrate Thanksgiving with one heart and one voice. I love that phrase, with one heart and one voice. Lincoln clearly was looking forward to a day when we would be whole again.

President Abraham Lincoln, October 3rd, 1863. The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and helpful skies. To these bounties which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come. Others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and even soften the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war, peace has been preserved with all nations. Order has been maintained. The laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union. Sarah Josepha Hale set out to bring Americans together, and I think she deserves more credit than she gets today for her role in helping to establish American culture. And one of her biggest achievements is the Thanksgiving holiday.

And so as we all gather together this year on Thanksgiving Day, Hale is going to be the unseen presence at our table. And I hope we all take a moment to think about her and thank her for her creativity and her persistence in making this a great American holiday. And a special thanks to producer and contributor John Elfner, a history teacher in Illinois, and he worked on that beautiful story.

Thanks also to Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Lady Editor, and go to Amazon of the Usual Suspects to pick up the book. And what a story. She starts a private letter writing campaign, gets rejected by Miller Fillmore, even Governor Wise of Virginia said no. Fillmore said it's a states issue.

Wise, a governor, said it's not my business either. But she's persistent and writes to the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who writes back. And my goodness, what a proclamation you just heard. And what an accomplishment. So as we're enjoying our Thanksgiving dinner, we don't have Abraham Lincoln to thank in the end. We have the woman who started it all, the godmother of Thanksgiving.

I'm talking about Sarah Josepha Hale, her story here on Our American Stories. There's a new way to access iHeartRadio hands free and on the go. Introducing the new Hey iHeart voice experience on compatible Skullcandy earbuds and headphones.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-21 04:35:58 / 2023-11-21 04:44:04 / 8

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