The first American Thanksgiving, the one celebrated by Pilgrims and Indians according to well-established historical tradition, provides at best a mixed legacy. This is because the invading Europeans had a project of colonization that didn’t include respecting either the territorial or the cultural rights of the native peoples to any great extent – and the Indians didn’t fully apprehend what they might be in for. But the origin of Thanksgiving as a national holiday is another matter, because this owed much to the energy of a remarkable nineteenth-century woman, Sarah Josepha Hale.
Born Sarah Josepha Buell in New Hampshire in 1788, she married David Hale, a lawyer, and gave birth to five children. In 1822, her beloved husband died, and Hale suddenly needed to support the family. Fortunately, her parents had believed in educating girls as well as boys, and therefore young Sarah had received a fine home schooling. As many other women did in that age when higher education was closed to them and they needed to earn money, the young widow turned to writing. The difference between her and other women doing the same was that she was more successful than most. Publishing a collection of poetry and a novel before finding her true calling as an editor, Hale went to work for Louis Godey in 1837 as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. She stayed in that position for 40 years. Because Godey’s was the most popular women’s magazine of the nineteenth century, Hale was necessarily one of the most influential editors of the period, publishing prominent men like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. Both men and women read Godey’s.
Hale’s politics and the extent of her support for women’s issues are difficult to characterize. She supported the Whigs before the Civil War, attracted to their idea of developing the nation’s economy. But on women’s issues she was all over the map. She opposed women voting, for example, but supported higher education for them. Deeply committed to the idea that men and women should operate in separate spheres of society, she believed that women should only be employed in indoor jobs that echoed the home in some fashion. But then she pointed out that physicians work indoors, and that therefore it was appropriate for a woman to be a medical professional. She was also a strong advocate for married women’s property rights at a time when a wife had no legal standing to own property apart from her husband. On balance, then, her editorial messages tended to support the expansion of rights more than not, especially given the conventional wisdom about gender roles at the time. But on the most pressing public issue of her day, slavery, she was resolutely silent, perhaps because Godey’s had readers in the South as well as in the North and the West.
Thanksgiving was celebrated regionally when Hale began her crusade to make it a national holiday but other than the fact that it was some time in the fall, the dates of various governors’ proclamations weren’t necessarily in agreement. As sectionalism grew in the 1850s, Hale thought it would be salutary for all the people of the country to break bread and give thanks in a giant communal celebration on the same day, and that this shared ritual would help forge national unity. Not only did she write about the issue in Godey’s, but she also wrote to prominent men as part of the campaign, including men who were serving as governors, senators, secretaries of state, and even as the President. Leading Kentucky politician Henry Clay thanked her for gifts and prominent thinker Oliver Wendell Holmes declared himself to be such a fan that he avidly read all her editorial comments. In 1863 her long campaign achieved success when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that henceforth Thanksgiving would be a national holiday.
Hale’s success shows how even without the vote, a woman who harnessed the power of the written word could exert significant influence in the nineteenth-century – as Harriet Beecher Stowe had done when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The vote is an essential component of citizenship in a democracy, but it is not the only means of participating in civic life. Before the Civil War, black and white women alike organized voluntary societies, wrote about politics, gave public speeches, and circulated petitions. Then, once the war had broken out, Sarah Josepha Hale used her popular following to enhance the spirit of national unity. Non-sectarian, generous in its inclusivity, patriotic without the taint of jingoism, Thanksgiving does, in fact, provide a significant ritual celebrating a nation coming together. E pluribus unum.