Remembered primarily for her nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” from 1830, Sarah Josepha Hale was also a committed advocate for women’s education and raised funds to construct Massachusett’s Bunker Hill Monument and save George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Hale’s writing began as a means of supporting herself and her children following the death of her husband, lawyer David Hale.
In addition to her work in historic preservation, Hale also lobbied tirelessly to create a national day of Thanksgiving as a unifying element between north and south. Beginning in 1846, she began approaching politicians to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Sarah wanted every governor of every state or territory to proclaim a Thanksgiving Day and she wanted that day to be uniform through America. “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.”
At the time, it was only celebrated in the Northeast.
Her requests were largely ignored until 1862. In April of that year, President Abraham Lincoln called for a day of thanks following Union victories at Fort Donelson, Fort Henry and Shiloh. He called for this again in the summer of 1863 following the Battle of Gettysburg.
Shortly after this, Hale wrote President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward urging them to declare a national Thanksgiving. “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.”
Within a week of receiving this letter, Seward drafted Lincoln’s official proclamation fixing the national observation of Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November. Lincoln and Seward hoped this action would help “heal the wounds of the nation”.
Sarah continued her crusade; she pushed for an act of Congress establishing Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November. Sarah died at age 91 without seeing this happen.
On January 3, 1941 Representative Earl Michener of Michigan introduced House Joint Resolution 41 to set the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. The Senate amended the resolution establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday in keeping with Ms. Hale’s campaign seventy some years earlier. The House agreed to the amendment and President Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941 establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.