Thanksgiving, like most other American holidays, has been depicted in masculine terms: The historic vision of Colonial New Englander Miles Standish, with musket in one hand and a tom turkey in the other, comes to mind.
But in fact, the formal Thanksgiving celebrated today is the accomplishment of one woman Sarah Josepha Hale, who campaigned long and hard for the holiday, mostly from Philadelphia.
Mrs. Hale was not born in the City of Brotherly Love. A New Englander, she grew up in the years after the American Revolution. In an age when men were the only recipients of a formal education, she received some intellectual rudiments from her mother and from a brother who attended Dartmouth.
At the age of 25, she married David Hale, a lawyer, and in quick succession had five children. When her husband unexpectedly died just eight years after their marriage, Sarah Josepha Hale was faced with the bleakest of financial prospects for her family.
So she developed the abilities that she felt had both promise and personal enjoyment: writing.
Mrs. Hale in the 1820s published poetry and a novel. She persevered in her writing, finally acquiring a secure position as editor of Ladies Magazine, published in Boston.
Renamed Godey’s Lady’s Book after a new publisher and relocated to Philadelphia, the magazine bore Mrs. Hale’s imprint for nearly 50 years, until her death in 1879. For several years, she wrote much of its material, with sufficient skill to attract a circulation of 150,000, enormous by the standards of the day. Godey’s Lady’s Book was a fashion magazine, but in spite of numerous illustrations, had room for commentary that reflected the editor’s views.
Although Mrs. Hale campaigned, first and foremost, in such columns for the better education of females, her concern for a national day of thanksgiving was manifest for 31/2 decades not only in columns, but in letters to governors and presidents of the United States.
Her campaign arose, in part, as a reflection of the blessings her own American life revealed: a woman without formal education working herself up to a responsible, professional position through hard work, perseverance and prayer.
In a September 1863 editorial, Mrs. Hale wrote: “Would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become national in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?”
President Abraham Lincoln, whose Union forces had shortly before participated in the critical and harrowing turning point of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, was moved by the editorial and issued a proclamation Oct. 3 establishing the November holiday.