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The Woman Who Fought For Our Annual Thanksgiving Tradition

Why Abraham Lincoln Proclaimed Thanksgiving an Annually Celebrated Holiday

The Woman Who Fought For Our Annual Thanksgiving Tradition
Photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash

In 1846 a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday that is celebrated annually on a fixed date. Up to now Thanksgiving was primarily only celebrated in the Northeast.

Finally, in 1863, after a seventeen year endeavor, in the middle of the Civil War (1861-1865), President Abraham Lincoln signed into action a National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.

Thus, he wrote the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 3, 1863. His proclamation declared that Thanksgiving Day would be celebrated on the last Thursday of each November. But it wasn’t over.

Seventy-six years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November in 1939. For many years the country was split on when Thanksgiving was celebrated. Sixteen states refused the change, preferring to honor President Abraham Lincoln’s date while 32 states honored President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamation.

Finally, in 1941 Congress passed a resolution declaring Thanksgiving would be celebrated as a legal holiday on the last Thursday of November each year (Lincoln’s suggestion). But the drama was not over.

When the bill reached the Senate they amended it. The Senate declared that the fourth Thursday of November would be the legally celebrated national holiday (Roosevelt’s suggestion). President Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941 thus making it a federal holiday.

Sarah Josepha Hale is the author of the well-known nursery rhyme, Mary Had A Little Lamb (circa 1830) which is reportedly based on a true story. She was an author, journalist and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book for fifty years from 1837-1877. She introduced the word ‘lingerie’ in the year 1852 as a less embarrassing way of writing about undergarments.

Hale created a segment called ‘Employment For Women’ which discussed women entering the workplace. Ms. Hale also founded the Seaman’s Aid Society in 1833 to assist the families who had lost husbands and fathers at sea.

Sarah did not retire until 1877, at age 89. It was that year that Thomas Edison is said to have spoken the first few phrases of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ as the first thing ever recorded on his newly invented phonograph. Sarah died soon after on April 30, 1879.

While editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign of editorials in 1837 to tout her desire for Thanksgiving to become an annual national day of observance.

Widely revered, my research found almost every newspaper printed the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation for their readers.


October 3, 1863

“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 soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, 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 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. “

Abraham Lincoln

The October 3, 1863 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation was, perhaps, an effort by Lincoln to bring the entire country together, if only in gesture and thought, if not arm in arm. Remember that 1863 was the height of the Civil War; not to end until some two years later in 1865.

To read more about the beginnings and journey of our beloved Thanksgiving holiday and enjoy some historic photos! You can read the new kindle title:

LITTLE KNOWN FACTS ABOUT THANKSGIVING AND LINCOLN’S PROCLAMATION (Annotated) Kindle Ed., (please note the kindle ‘annotated’ edition is the only one with the added historical photos and text)

Paula C. Henderson
Paula C. Henderson
Read next: The State
Paula C. Henderson

Paula is a freelance writer, healthy food advocate, mom and cookbook author.

See all posts by Paula C. Henderson

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