The Mother of Thanksgiving

Of all the world’s nations, it would make sense that the one with the most to be thankful for would be the first to establish a holiday of Thanksgiving, but this most American of celebrations would not have been possible without the tireless, decades-long effort of a woman who deserves the thanks of an entire nation.

This is the forgotten history of The Mother of Thanksgiving.

Sarah Hale was the sort of woman who refused to take no for an answer. At a time when young ladies were expected to learn only to be homemakers, Sarah read every book she could get her hands on. Her parents encouraged this, and her older brother, a Dartmouth graduate, assisted in her informal education.

She was also a devout woman and said daily prayers of thanksgiving for her good fortune. She was educated in an era when such a thing was nearly impossible, and even as a young girl she knew it. That’s why, when she was 15, she was horrified that President Thomas Jefferson ended the tradition of Presidents Washington and Adams, who each declared national days of thanksgiving every year.

Jefferson said his belief in the constitutionally required separation of church and state meant that he, as a representative of the government, could not declare a day of prayer. Sarah was disappointed by this, but kept her own personal day of thanksgiving and implemented it in her schoolhouse when she became a teacher.

A kind but strong-willed schoolmaster, Sarah was bemused when one of her pupils, a young girl named Mary, brought her pet lamb to the schoolhouse. Rather than berate the girl, Sarah wrote a poem about the incident that her students would recite as a means of helping them learn to read.

Sarah never stopped reading and writing, and in 1823 published a book of her poems entitled The Genius of Oblivion. After publishing a novel four years later, she wrote a book of poems for children that included her fun little rhyme about her student’s lamb, which began: Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

The poem became a huge hit and was even turned into a popular children’s song called “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Based on its success, the publisher of Ladies Magazine asked Sarah to serve as its editor. Sarah was overjoyed and, of course, said prayers of thanksgiving. When Godey’s Lady’s Book bought Ladies Magazine and merged the two journals, Sarah became one of the most influential female writers and editors in the country.

She used her influence to advocate for the preservation of her beloved President Washington’s Mount Vernon estate as a national historical landmark, and raised the colossal sum of $30,000 to fund a monument to the heroes who fought in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill.

She achieved far more than even she thought possible and she was of course thankful for all of her life’s blessings, but still troubled by the fact that she didn’t think her country was as thankful as she was. She wanted a national day of thanksgiving like the ones Presidents Washington and Adams had declared when she was a young girl. So she started writing letters to the President. Lots of them.

And not just one president. All of them. She wrote to President Zachary Taylor. Then Millard Fillmore. Then Franklin Pierce. And James Buchanan. For 17 years, she wrote and publicly advocated for a new national day of thanksgiving.

None of them were receptive, but as the Civil War raged, a letter she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln convinced him that a day in which the country could come together to pray and reflect on its blessings might help unite it.

He declared a new national holiday—just the third after Independence Day and George Washington’s birthday—and the fourth Thursday of November, 1863 became Thanksgiving.

At long last, Sarah Hale’s lifelong dream had been fulfilled. An entire nation would give thanks with her, and today, it gives thanks for her—living proof that there is no one who can get things done quite like a woman who refuses to take no for an answer.

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