Lincoln's Wartime Thanksgiving
This article is adapted from Thomas Fleming's recently published ebook, "An American Feast" about the history of Thanksgiving. A former president of the Society of American Historians, Fleming is a frequent contributor to HNN and member of our board of directors.
Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. But he never would have done it without the help of a determined woman from New England.
During the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving relapsed into a purely New England feast. When George Washington became president in 1789, he had proclaimed Thursday, November 26, as a day for people to assemble in churches and give thanks to God for the favorable conclusion of the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the new Constitution. Thomas Tudor Tucker, of South Carolina, groused: “Why should the President direct the people to do what perhaps they have no mind to.”
The next president, John Adams, was a Massachusetts man, and he steadfastly avoided imposing New England customs on other states. So the traditional turkey day went by the boards, though Adams did issue two fast day proclamations on other dates. With Thomas Jefferson, the idea of a national Thanksgiving disappeared entirely. He regarded presidential proclamations as a “monarchical custom,” and refused to make one on any subject.
Then entered Sarah Josepha Hale. She is remembered today largely as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but in her time she was a noted novelist, editor, and all-around dynamo. Left a widow with five children to support, New Hampshire-born Hale began a writing career and was an almost immediate success. From the beginning, the idea of a truly national Thanksgiving seemed to obsess her. In her first novel, Norwood, published in 1827, she declared: “Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people.”
One of her shrewdest propaganda gambits was devoting as much as a whole chapter in her novels to a typical New England Thanksgiving dinner with a menu that would have kept the Pilgrims and their 90 Indian guests eating for a week.
In 1937, Hale became editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the foremost women’s magazine of its day. The magazine was published in Philadelphia, and Hale was outraged to find Thanksgiving almost totally ignored there. Starting in 1846, Godey’s carried impassioned editorials on Thanksgiving—plus lip-smacking recipes for such dishes as “Indian pudding with frumenty sauce,” “Ham soaked in cider for three weeks, stuffed with sweet potatoes, and baked in maple syrup.”
Backing up her magazine, Hale wrote hundreds of letters to mayors, governors, senators, and congressmen, urging the adoption of a national Thanksgiving Day. Each time a new president came into office, he got a barrage of mail from her.
The Hale campaign was assisted by the enthusiasm with which migrating New Englanders talked up their Thanksgiving. In New York City alone, as many as 50,000 people went home to New England to have their turkey each year. Ex-Vermonter Horace Greeley hymned it in poetry:
Come home to Thanksgiving! Dear Children come home!
From the North and the South from the West and the East
Where e’er ye are resting where e’er ye roam
Come back to this sacred and annual feast.
The nation’s ominous plunge toward Civil War made a national Thanksgiving Day even more important, in Hale’s opinion. In November 1859, she wrote: “If every state would join in Union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States which guarantees peace, prosperity, progress and perpetuity to our republic?” In 1861, with the bitter conflict raging, she urged the nation to “lay aside our enmities on this one day and join in a Thanksgiving Day of Peace.”
But her master move was reserved for 1863, when her annual editorial urged President Lincoln to make a proclamation, creating with one bold stroke a national day that would help heal “sectional feelings.” Remember that 1863 was the year of Gettysburg, of the draft riots that wrecked New York City, a year of terrible suffering. To many, the idea of Thanksgiving must have seemed absurd.
The lonely man from Illinois who sat in the White House, however, agreed with the lady from New England. He, too, yearned, above all, to heal sectional feelings. A few weeks after he received Hale’s editorial, Lincoln issued a proclamation setting Thursday, November 26, as “A day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father.”
Here is part of the unforgettable first Thanksgiving proclamation by an American president:
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. . . . In the midst of civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity . . . 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; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
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. . . .
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