How Thanksgiving Started in the United States

Heritage Explains

How Thanksgiving Started in the United States

Learn more about Sarah Josepha Hale and why she so desperately wanted President Abraham Lincoln to adopt the idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Did you know that for much of the 19th century, Thanksgiving was only celebrated by New Englanders and Northeastern transplants in the upper Midwest and New York? Learn more about Sarah Josepha Hale and why she so desperately wanted President Abraham Lincoln to adopt the idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero, and this is Heritage Explains.

Did you know that a woman helped make Thanksgiving a national holiday? Sarah Josepha Hale was a novelist, poet, and editor of a very popular pre-Civil War lifestyle magazine. Hale campaigned for a national day of Thanksgiving for decades. In the 1840s, many states had an annual Thanksgiving Day, but the date varied depending on where you lived.

There wasn't one specific day to celebrate together as a nation. Sometimes referred to as the godmother of Thanksgiving, she wrote thousands of letters, editorials, stories, and even recipes promoting a national day of Thanksgiving.

Hale saw Thanksgiving as an important supplement to the nation's principle civic holiday, Independence Day. While Independence Day celebrates the birth of our nation, our founding fathers, and our founding principles. Thanksgiving celebrates the origins of the American people, family, and faith in God.

Hale envisioned that a nationwide celebration of Thanksgiving would also help bind the nation together more tightly. She believed that living under the same constitution and sharing the same federal government was not enough to forge one people from America's diverse inhabitants and distinct regions.

Many presidents ignored Hale's letters, but President Lincoln did not. His October 3rd, 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation read, "In the midst of a civil war of unequal magnitude and severity, 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."

And it was with this proclamation that began the unbroken tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations by every president after. Heritage is John York whose op-Ed inspired this history lesson, writes that Americans do not share a common ancestry or ethnicity. So building a shared historical narrative is all the more important to the sense that we are all one people. For these reasons, Lincoln was wise to make Thanksgiving an official holiday.

That's it for this week. I'll put a link to York's op-ed in our show notes in case you want to share it with anyone. Tim and I and everyone at the Heritage Foundation wish you and those you love a very happy Thanksgiving and we'll see you next week.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher with editing by John Popp.