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Commentary: A history lesson on the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving’

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Jodi Rall, Columnist File Photo

Jodi Rall is a Brentwood resident and writer. 

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement, so I thought I’d give a little history lesson on someone many don’t know, known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”  

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was an American writer, activist and influential editor who campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  

Hale began her campaign in 1846 and wrote letters to Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln. 

In November 1859, Hale wrote, “[God] has saved, enlarged, blessed and prospered us beyond any people on this globe. Should we not be thankful, and keep high holiday of gratitude and gladness in acknowledgment of these national blessings?”  

In addition, Hale wanted to foster national unity. The United States had grown from 13 colonies to around 30 states by the mid-1800s.  

As a New Englander, Hale celebrated the holiday each year, however, in the Southern states, Thanksgiving was largely unknown. Her hope was the holiday would collapse the physical distance between families.  

“You may have observed that … 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,” Hale wrote in her letter to Lincoln.  

Lincoln read her letter and agreed that celebrating Thanksgiving as a nation would create a unifying day after the stress and division created from the Civil War.  

Lincoln made the proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863. This was the same date President George Washington signed the original Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789.  

“[Though] the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing that all were enjoying the feast. From the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific border, the telegraph of human happiness would move every heart to gladness simultaneously,” Hale wrote in an 1851 editorial. 

Hale, who famously wrote the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” penned many novels and used her voice to stand up for equality in women’s education and social justice. She was one of the first women to write about her hatred of slavery in her novels and was the first American female novelist.  

As an editor, she preferred to be called “editress.” Hale used her voice first at the Ladies Magazine in Boston and then became editor of Gody’s Ladies Book, now known as American Ladies Magazine. She was editor at Gody’s for 40 years and retired in 1877 at almost 90 years old.  

Hale’s legacy for empowering women lives on, as she helped found Vassor College, advocating for higher education for women.  

As you sit down this year at your own Thanksgiving table, think about the woman who used her voice to give us a beloved national holiday.

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