She was born in New Hampshire in 1788. Her parents were advocates of education for both sexes, and Sarah was taught is school much beyond the normal age for women. She married a lawyer, and he also supported her education.
When her husband died after only 9 years of marriage, she decided to support herself and her five children as a poet. One of the books she wrote was Poems For Our Children, and its most famous poem was based on a story from her own childhood: Mary Had A Little Lamb. It was an immediate success.
An editor and writer, she believed that the United States would do well to celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving. So, beginning in 1846, she wrote to presidents and other political leaders, encouraging that. There was a regional day of Thanksgiving, but it was only celebrated in the Northeast.
That, perhaps, was a legacy from the very first Thanksgiving Day proclamation, issued by President George Washington on October 3, 1789.
You can read the full text here, but that proclamation begins with these words:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks….”
The letters of Sarah Josepha Hale were mostly ignored, but she persisted. Abraham Lincoln responded.
He did so in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. That may not seem like a time for giving thanks, and yet it was perfect.
Note that his proclamation was, like Washington’s, issued on October 3 and that the celebration would take place on November 26. I have no doubt that Lincoln saw God’s hand in those parallel dates.
His proclamation is given here in full. It is not the easiest read, but the reward is worth it.
By the President of the United States
The year that is drawing toward 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 even soften 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 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 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.
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, tranquility, 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 United States the eighty–eighth.
Mrs. Hale, Mr. Washington, and Mr. Lincoln are all great examples of doing good. I’m thankful for them.
You and I may never accomplish the good they did, but that is not the point. Do good, and see what happens.