Monday, November 23, 2015

Thank Sara Josepha Hale for Thanksgiving...

This Thursday, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving with a Turkey dinner and expressions of gratitude. Although the holiday has apparently become a target for the Politically Correct One Percent and Black Friday Capitalists alike, it is still a major US holiday, celebrated with turkey dinner.

Some may not feel very grateful, in the aftermath of recent ISIS attacks on Paris.

However, a look at the history of the Thanksgiving reveals that far from being a triumphal celebration of "white privilege," it is historically a solemn undertaking to demonstrate perseverence in the face adversity,  in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."  It was established due to a long campaign by an American woman writer and editor named Sara Josepha Hale, author of Mary Had a Little Lambwho personally persuaded Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the national holiday in the middle of the Civil War.

Growing from the roots of Thanksgiving as a tragic festival for a war-torn nation, the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth Massachussets mounted an historical exhibition dedicated to the holiday immediately in the wake of 9/11. 

It was  titled Giving Thanks: The Religious Roots of Thanksgiving. The show ran from November-December 2001 and was curated by Peggy M. Baker, Director and Librarian of the Pilgrim Society. It remains online at the Society website to this day, and makes for interesting reading at this time, when once again the world has faced atrocity and massacre. If anything, Thanksgiving is a holiday of resilience and endurance, and its meaning only grows over time.

In her online catalog, Baker noted that the legendary first Thanksgiving of 1621 was officially unrecorded, although it is alluded to in personal correspondence.  However, within two years it had become official in the Plymouth Colony: 

The Pilgrims’ first recorded religious day of thanksgiving was held in 1623. Plymouth had been stricken with a severe drought. "Upon which," said William Bradford, "they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress." That same evening it began "to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God… For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving."

And concluded: "Today, we still share the religious spirit of those earlier Thanksgivings:

  • an autumn thanksgiving to God for the blessings of the year is proclaimed,
  • our abundance is shared with those who are less fortunate,
  • and many families, before the feast, bow their heads in prayer."
Baker noted that the holiday became a national institution early in the American Revolution, and cited its celebration at Valley Forge as a significant turning point:

The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in gratitude for the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. The Continental Congress set aside Thursday, December 18th that "the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor." 
On December 17, 1777, the day before the first national Thanksgiving, George Washington was in winter quarters at Valley Forge. He wrote:
Tomorrow being the day set apart by the honorable Congress for Public Thanksgiving and praise, and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgments to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the general directs … that the chaplains perform divine service.
In addition to an opportunity for prayer, acts of charity were part of Thanksgiving celebrations, with Baker quoted none other than Sara Josepha Hale:

The Cheerful Giver
Although Providence has blessed our land with an abounding harvest, we must remember that there are among us many who will have but a scanty and insufficient share in this abundance. The civil war has given to our care many maimed and helpless men, many widows and orphans, many destitute refugees… Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving. (Sarah Josepha Hale, in Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1864)

"The Widow's Thanksgiving,"
Harper's Magazine, December 5, 1874

However, after the Revolution until the Civil War, Thanksgiving proclamations were largely issued by State Governors rather than the President.

Enter Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, who is credited as "the godmother of Thanksgiving" on the Pilgrim Society website, which says her 1827 novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, for popularized the holiday (although mistakenly placing it in the Massachusetts Bay), as well as her 1835 short story, "The Thanksgiving of the Heart," in her collection Traits of American Life, which published this description:

Our good ancestors were wise, even in their mirth. We have a standing proof of this in the season they chose for the celebration of our annual festival, the Thanksgiving. The funeral-faced month of November is thus made to wear a garland of joy...There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which a whole community participate. They bring out, and together, as it were, the best sympathies of our nature. The rich contemplate the enjoyments of the poor with complacency, and the poor regard the entertainments of the rich without envy, because all are privileged to be happy in their own way.

The website explains: "In these two books are the beginnings of what would grow to be one of Sarah Josepha Hale’s lifelong crusades. The platform from which she would wage her holy war was that of editor of Godey's Lady's Book."

The first year of her editorship, 1837, Sarah wrote the first of her Thanksgiving editorials. Praising the holiday for its domestic and moral influence, she suggested that it “might, without inconvenience, be observed on the same day of November, say the last Thursday in the month, throughout all New England; and also in our sister states, who have engrafted it upon their social system. It would then have a national character, which would, eventually, induce all the states to join in the commemoration of “In- gathering,” which it celebrates. It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart the social and domestic ties. It calls together the dispersed members of the family circle, and brings plenty, joy and gladness to the dwellings of the poor and lowly.”

Sarah did not introduce the topic again until 1842, when she used the example of Thanksgiving to favorably compare New England to “Old” England:

“At this season every family, almost, in our land has the comforts of life, and nearly all have the hope and prospect of living thus comfortably through the coming seasons. In Old England it is not so. Thousands, aye, million of her people are suffering daily from the "want of all things!"

Sarah’s crusade for a national Thanksgiving really began in 1847, when she noted that:

The Governor of New Hampshire has appointed Thursday, November 25th, as the day of annual thanksgiving in that state. We hope every governor in the twenty-nine states will appoint the same day -- 25th of November -- as the day of thanksgiving! Then the whole land would rejoice at once.”

This was followed by editorials in 1848 (there were two that year!) and 1849. After a one-year gap in 1850, Sarah resumed her Thanksgiving editorials, continuing without interruption for more than 20 years.

As Sarah noted in one of her 1848 editorials:

“...the appointment of the [Thanksgiving] day rests with the governors of each state; and hitherto, though the day of the week was always Thursday, that of the months had been varied. But the last Thursday of last November [1847] was kept as Thanksgiving Day in twenty-four of the twenty-nine states -- all that kept such a feast at all. May the last Thursday of the next November witness this glad and glorious festival, this „feast of the ingathering of harvest,‟ extended over our whole land, from the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Plymouth Rock to the Sunset Sea.”

Sarah’s crusade was, therefore, two-fold. She wanted every governor of every state or territory to proclaim a Thanksgiving Day and she wanted that day to be uniform throughout America. Then, as she proclaimed in 1851, “There would then be two great American national festivals, Independence Day, on the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving Day, on the last Thursday in November.” She explained her choice of the last Thursday in November in this way.

“The last Thursday in November has these advantages -- harvests of all kinds are gathered in -- summer travellers have returned to their homes -- the diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some portions of our country, have ceased, and all are prepared to enjoy a day of Thanksgiving.”

Several strong themes carried throughout Sarah’s campaign. One was the importance of Thanksgiving’s religious connotations:

"THE FOURTH OF JULY is the exponent of independence and civil freedom. 

THANKSGIVING DAY is the national pledge of Christian faith in God, acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings. These two festivals should be joyfully and universally observed throughout our whole country, and thus incorporated in our habits of thought as inseparable from American life.” (1852)

Another was Thanksgiving’s role in unifying a geographically far-flung nation:

“ would be better to have the day so fixed by the expression of public sentiment that no discord would be possible, but, from Maine to Mexico, from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea, the hymn of thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised, as the pledge of brotherhood in the enjoyment of God‟s blessings during the year.“ (1854)

As years passed, Sarah’s editorials emphasized ever more strongly the unifying role that Thanksgiving could play within an increasingly divided nation. In 1859, she rhapsodized

We are already spread and mingled over the Union. Each year, by bringing us oftener together, releases us from the estrangement and coolness consequent on distance and political alienations; each year multiplies our ties of relationship and friendship. How can we hate our Mississippi brother-in-law? and who is a better fellow than our wife‟s uncle from St. Louis? If Maine itself be a great way off, and almost nowhere, on the contrary, a dozen splendid fellows hail from Kennebec County, and your wife is a down-Easter.”

That year, 32 states and territories, plus the District of Columbia, celebrated Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November.

In 1860, she wrote:

“Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each a member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished.

We have sought to reawaken and increase this sympathy, believing that the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people... We believe our Thanksgiving Day, if fixed and perpetuated, will be a great and sanctifying promoter of this national spirit.”

Sarah’s hopes were, of course, not to be fulfilled. In 1861, the bombardment of Fort Sumter opened the Civil War.

Sarah reported that, in 1861,“this National Feast Day was celebrated in twenty-four States and three Territories; all these, excepting the States of Massachusetts and Maine, held the Festival on the same day the last Thursday in November. “ The “missing” states were, of course, those of the Confederacy.
Sarah did not give up the fight. Instead, she tried a different strategy. As she suggested in her 1863 editorial:

“Would it not be of great advantage, socially, nationally, religiously, to have the DAY of our American Thanksgiving positively settled? Putting aside the sectional feelings and local incidents that might be urged by any single State or isolated Territory that desired to choose its own time, would it not be more noble, more truly American, to become nationally in unity when we offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year?

Taking this view of the case, would it not be better that the proclamation which appoints Thursday the 26th of November (1863) as the day of Thanksgiving for the people of the United States of America should, in the first instance, emanate from the President of the Republic to be applied by the Governors of each and every State, in acquiescence with the chief executive adviser?”

Sarah’s questions were rhetorical.

On September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale had written to President Abraham Lincoln. The letter is preserved in the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Library of Congress. In it she wrote

”As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag -- could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.”

Sarah Josepha’s petition brought the result she was seeking. On October 3, Lincoln issued a proclamation that urged Americans to observe the last Thursday in Novemberas a day of Thanksgiving. 

Here's the text of Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation, as relevant today as in 1863:

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. 

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, 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 theatre of military conflict; while that theatre 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 defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe 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 battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness 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. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. 

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Thank you, Sara Josepha Hale, for Thanksgiving.