A Thanksgiving Day Tribute to Sarah Hale: Feminist, Bane of Presidents & Turkeys

sarah-haleToday when you utter her name, turkeys all across the Fruited Plain run for cover.  Yet during Sarah Josepha Buell Hale’s lifetime, it was U.S. Presidents who stuck their heads in the sand when they saw one of her frequent epistolary missives sticking out of a White House mailbag.

When you raise your first glass of wine at today’s Thanksgiving Table, raise it to one of the most influential Americans of the 19th century—a person who wasn’t allowed to cast a ballot during her lifetime—a woman without whom you wouldn’t be enjoying your Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, your 12:30 matchup between the Lions and the Bears, or your Bakers Square French silk pie (you Minnesotans are so damned lucky!).

A TOAST TO SARAH HALE!

Hell, drink an entire carafe of cabernet in her honor.  (After all, I have while writing this.)

To be honest, I’m somewhat shocked the United States has yet to strike Sarah Hale’s visage upon a coin (with a can of cranberries on the reverse side).  Without her indefatigable efforts, not only would we not have Thanksgiving Day, but we would also be absent “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Vassar College, as well as national heritage sites such as Mt. Vernon and Bunker Hill.  And that’s just a start.

But before we get any deeper into this article, I’m going to recommend that anyone with young children in the family—especially impressionable young girls—make a quick pit stop to Amazon and throw down a ten-buck, pre-Black Friday splurge for Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner’s REMARKABLE illustrated children’s book, Thank you, Sarah.

This book has established the framework for all conversations about Thanksgiving with my young daughter, and additionally has served as a foundation for all my parental conversations with her about early U.S. history and issues relating to Native American history.

Anyway, back to Turkey Day.

Today, you’re probably going to come across a few media tributes to Abraham Lincoln, who, on October 3, 1863, declared via Presidential Proclamation Thanksgiving Day as just the third national holiday on the U.S. calendar (the other two being Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day):

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and 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.”

There will also be standard media attention about the First Thanksgiving celebrated between the Puritans and the Wampanoag people group nearly 400 years ago in 1621 at the Plymouth Colony.  I have been pretty adamant on these pages in the past few months about Native American issues.  (You can read my opinions about Columbus Day and the NFL’s Washington BLANKS here.)

So, yes, it’s important to remember that not 15 years after the First Thanksgiving, in 1636, Captain John Mason led the Pequot Massacre in nearby Connecticut.  Historian Howard Zinn reminds us of the words of Pequot Massacre contemporary William Bradford:  “‘Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword, some hewed to peeces …  and very few escaped.”

Perhaps even more important are the words of famous Puritan pamphleteer, Cotton Mather, penned less than a century later:  “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”

If I can contribute any original thoughts to First Thanksgiving Dialogue, perhaps it is that, while often we rejoice in the fact that the Puritans sought freedom of religion in the New World, perhaps there was a reason that Europeans were more than a bit eager to be rid of them.  Puritan theology often reads like Evangelicalism on steroids.  (Sadly, sometimes not even on steroids.)

Yet on this day of National Fest-Gorging, I’m taking a break from dwelling on negative things.  So back to Sarah Hale.

Sarah Hale was the original “Devil Wears Prada”—only she was a bit more occupied with issues like college education for women and the discontinuation of corporal punishment of children than your average Cosmo or Vogue editor.

Hale was one of the first female American literary successes.  Her successful poetry and forays into fiction caught the attention of Boston publisher John Blake, who invited her to serve as the editor of Ladies’ MagazineLadies’ eventually merged into the even bigger Godey’s Lady’s Book, which Hale proceeded to edit for four decades.

When Hale retired in 1877, Edison famously spoke the words of her most famous poem into his nifty-keen phonograph invention.  Perhaps you’ve heard of this ditty; it begins:  “Mary had a little lamb / Its fleece was white as snow.”

But Sarah Hale’s most important contribution to American culture remains her crusade on behalf of all citizens of the United States of America, that they should partake at the table in singular spirit one day per annum in joyous festivity:

“[It] is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.”

When Hale’s crusade for a national Thanksgiving Day began in earnest in 1847, a number of states had already variously declared “days of thanksgiving,” but November was anything but a uniform date for such celebrations.

That’s when the presidential letter campaign started.  Sarah and her legion of letter-launching, female followers inundated the Oval Offices of Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan with calls for a national Day of Thanksgiving.  By 1859, state legislators of 32 states and territories had succumbed to the feminist “hail” for a Day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November, yet the four Presidents above remained unmoved.

Then arrived the Civil War.  (For what it’s worth, Sarah Hale used her literary voice to speak out adamantly against slavery, as well.)  With the fate of the Union at bay, in 1863, Hale penned the following 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?”

In September 1863, Hale wrote to a fifth consecutive U.S. President with similar sentiment.  (Read her letter here.)  This time, the Executive Fish took the bait.

Within days of receiving Hale’s letter, Lincoln issued his presidential proclamation.

And the only reason you’re reading my article today—maybe because you needed to escape to your cellphone to avoid yet another political conversation with family members, or perhaps because you needed a decent nudge toward a post-tryptophan nap—is because of all of the above.

Anyway, just remember that somewhere in the vicinity of halftime of the Eagles-Cowboys pigskin blood fest, whilst other family members are wrapping up that annual obligatory Ungame match, that the entire family is scheduled to gather around the kitchen table for a final late-night feast of Stove Top stuffing, turkey biscuits and ambrosia salad.  Everyone is doubtless sick and tired of hearing what each other has to say about any particular topic.

Thus, may I suggest?  Take this opportunity to be the Thanksgiving Day hero.  Announce that you have something you want to read to the gang.  Bookmark this article and read it aloud from the top.

Then when you’ve reached the end, insist that everyone raise their fork and stuff a piece of Cool Whip-covered pumpkin pie into their mouths in honor of one of the greatest women who ever lived.  One more time:

A TOAST TO SARAH HALE!

Postscript:  I expressly forbid that any member of the Walton Family be allowed to participate in this gesture.  Sarah Hale turns in her grave at any mention of your lot.  Do you honest-to-God believe that a woman who spent decades of her life campaigning for Thanksgiving Day would approve of how your company has worked tirelessly to demolish the spirit of this special day with your wretched Black Thursday?  A pox on your house.  I snood in your general direction.

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!

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