Thanksgiving turns 150, thanks to Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln declared the third Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863. / Photo, dated Nov. 8, 1863, by Alexander Gardner via Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln declared the third Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863. / Photo by Alexander Gardner via Wikimedia Commons

In all the talk of sweet potato latkes and other Thanksgivukkah treats, many of us have overlooked another important event: the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims get a lot of ink this time of year, but the fact is that Thanksgiving wasn’t Thanksgiving until President Abraham Lincoln said so on Oct. 3, 1863.

“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,” Lincoln wrote in a presidential proclamation.

Lincoln was heavily influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale, a 19th-century writer and Thanksgiving lobbyist who for more than a decade wrote to presidents, governors and anyone who would listen, urging them to enshrine what was then an intermittent and regionally fractured tradition as an official national holiday.

The Civil War fueled her argument that the holiday was a way to unite Americans. In the women’s magazine Godey’s, where she was the editor, Hale wrote in 1860 that a national Thanksgiving Day would achieve “a complete moral and social reunion of the people of America. … Would not this be a good omen for the perpetual political union of the States?”

Her letter to Lincoln on Sept. 28, 1863, seems to have convinced – or perhaps shamed – the president to act. “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States,” she wrote to Lincoln. “It now needs National recognition and authoritive [sic] fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.” (Check out the entire letter – in Hale’s handwriting – at the Library of Congress.)

Sarah Hale's letter to Lincoln. / Photo from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Hale’s letter to Lincoln. / Photo from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln issued his proclamation just five days after Hale’s letter.

So where do the Pilgrims come in? They did in fact have a large feast of gratitude and praise with their Native American neighbors. (Though Native Americans, it should be noted, view that feast as the beginning of their betrayal. United American Indians of New England, writes the Washington Post, has called Thanksgiving “The National Day of Mourning” since 1970.)

During the country’s colonial era, the holiday was celebrated intermittently in New England. Every now and then the governor of some state would proclaim a day of thanksgiving. But it wasn’t until 150 years ago this week that Americans understood the third Thursday in November as the day all of us, no matter where we’re from or what we may have eaten there, sit in front of a turkey and feel grateful.

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2 Responses to Thanksgiving turns 150, thanks to Abraham Lincoln

  1. Carol Guensburg November 27, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Dearest Abe, my family thanks you for establishing this holiday. The turkey does not.

  2. Jean | November 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    I posted the politically incorrectly named Indian Pudding today, in honor of my ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. Pilgrim comfort food. So sad that new arrivals over the years, as a whole, could not get along with the people who were already here. Something I’ve always known, and my study of genealogy constantly reminds me, if you go back far enough we’re ALL cousins! So … though I may be more closely related to the Pilgrims, I consider myself also related to the Wampanoags there on the Mayflower’s arrival!