“Now the purpose is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November as the National Thanksgiving for all these classes of people who are under the National Government particularly …thus by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.”
Sarah Josepha Hale
September 28, 1863
For over 30 years, Sarah Josepha Hale had been a persistent and tireless advocate for a National Day of Thanksgiving. From the time her popular book Northwood was published in 1827, a volume that contained a vivid description of a New England thanksgiving feast, Hale had used her position as editor of two leading women’s magazines to make the case for an American day of communal feasting and giving thanks. In Hale’s mind, it would be a day as important to Americans as Independence Day. During her time as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale wrote two editorials each year to promote Thanksgiving: one editorial appeared early in the calendar year asking states and territories to join the cause of setting aside a day of thanksgiving; the second editorial appeared in November to report on the progress of national participation.
Hale’s letter to Abraham Lincoln on September 26, 1863 helped propel a prescient president, who was beginning to think about reunification and reconciliation for the divided country, to take action. Less than a week after receiving her letter, Lincoln issued his proclamation that made the last Thursday in November a day of national thanksgiving.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast best captured Hale’s spirit and intent in his illustration that appeared in the October 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Far from the Pilgrim tableau favored in later years, Nast’s illustration depicts a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and diverse age group celebrating a communal meal with Uncle Sam as the turkey-carving host at head of table. Surrounding the group are images of liberty, justice, three US Presidents, and the phrases “Come one come all,” “Free and Equal,” and “ Universal Suffrage.” Hanging prominently on the wall behind Uncle Sam is a painting of Castle Gardens, the mid-nineteenth-century precursor to Ellis Island, gateway for immigration. Born in eighteenth-century New England, Thanksgiving advocate Hale and illustrator Nast, a German immigrant of the nineteenth-century, have brought together a scene that is meaningful for those of us in the twenty-first-century.