Things are beginning to take on the appearances of the winter holidays here at Clarke House. With the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday fast approaching, I thought I would pause a moment to reflect on the history of the holiday during the time that Henry and Caroline Clarke lived in Chicago.
Thanksgiving as we know it today took on a very different appearance during the early to mid-nineteenth century. We currently celebrate the day on the fourth Thursday in November signed into federal legislation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 26th, 1941. A century and a half before this, on September 28, 1789, just prior to leaving for recess, the first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking then President George Washington to recommend to the country a day of thanksgiving. Washington would issue a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26th, 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin” – the first national Thanksgiving celebrated under the new Constitution.
From that time forth many presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations, but the months and days on which it was observed varied greatly.[i] As years passed, designation of the holiday was deferred to state-specific legislation. States choosing to celebrate Thanksgiving would each select their own date of observance independent of the others. Most states celebrated Thanksgiving anytime between October and January- most likely based on the tradition of celebrating the year-end harvest.[ii] Illinois was among several that regularly observed the holiday in November.
This pattern of state-proclaimed Thanksgivings continued through much of the nineteenth century. Mrs. Clarke and the children would have read the Illinois governors' annual proclamation naming the date of Thanksgiving in local newspapers. Their relatives in New York would have celebrated the holiday on a completely different day. It wasn't long before a push to standardize Thanksgiving, declaring it a national holiday, began to take root among citizens of the United States.
Not until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a presidential proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November as the day of Thanksgiving, did the nation universally celebrate the holiday on the same day.[iii] So how did it come to pass that Abraham Lincoln wrote a proclamation claiming Thanksgiving to be a Federal holiday in November?
Sarah Hale, c.1831 by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889).
In the collection of Richard’s Free Library, Newport, New Hampshire .
Hale received no formal education, only what was taught to her by her mother an older brother, a student at Dartmouth, who taught her Latin and philosophy. When her husband died suddenly, in 1822, leaving her with little means to provide for herself and five children, she began to try her hand at authorship. She published a volume of verse, The Genius of Oblivion (1823), and sent out numerous poems to local periodicals. She won acclaim in 1826 for her novel, Northwood, A Tale of New England. Two years later the Reverend John Lauris Blake offered her the editorship position of the Ladies Magazine, which began her active life as writer and promoter of conservative reform.[v] While editing the Ladies Magazine in 1837 Louis Antoine Godey bought out the magazine and established Mrs. Hale as literary editor of the Godey’s Lady's Book.[vi]
Just as many ladies of the mid-nineteenth century, Mrs. Clarke would have read frequently the latest issues of Godey’s Lady's Book. She and her daughters could read about social and political thoughts of the day and reference the latest woman’s fashion plates advertising the styles direct from England and France. One such article or editorial Caroline might have come across was in the January through June issue of 1847, volume 34. On page, 174 Sarah Hale wrote:
THANKSGIVING DAY.—We ventured to suggest, in our “Book” for January, that the last Thursday in November would be the day best suited for the Annual Thanksgiving holiday throughout our Republic. The suggestion has been responded to in terms of approbation, and we trust the leading journals in the nation will give their aid to prepare for such a universal rejoicing next November. That month of gloom would then become the gladdest in the year.[vii]
Eleven years later Hale was still campaigning to establish recognition for the holiday. Volume 57 from July – December 1858 states:
OUR NATIONAL THANKSGIVING.
All the blessings of the fields,
All the stores the garden yields,
All the plenty summer pours,
Autumn’s rich, overflowing stores,
Peace, prosperity, and health,
Private bliss and public wealth,
Knowledge with Its gladdening streams,
Pure religion’s holier beams—
Lord, for these our souls shall raise
Grateful vows and solemn praise.
We are most happy to agree with the large majority of the governors of the different States—as shown in their unanimity of action for several past years, which we hope, will this year be adopted by all—that The LAST THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER shall be the day of NATIONAL THANKSGIVING for the American people. Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand THANKSGIVING HOLIDAY of our nation, when the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart. This truly American Festival falls, this year, on the twenty-fifth day of this month.
Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that wilt, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular hear; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories sit down together to the “feast of fat things, “ and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all men. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world. [viii]
|Sarah Hale later in life, c.1855-60.|
Her campaign for establishing Thanksgiving as a federal holiday lasted seventeen years. She began as early as 1846 imploring President Zachary Taylor, and subsequently Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan all to nationalize the holiday. [ix] Her initial attempts failed to persuade, but the letter she wrote at age 75 to President Abraham Lincoln on September 28, 1863 seemed to have an influence none of the others had. After nearly two decades of dedicated prodding, Sarah Hale's wish for a national Thanksgiving Day came true. President Lincoln signed formal legislation finally establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving for the American people through an official proclamation in 1863.
|The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress|
Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916.
Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 28, 1863 (Thanksgiving Day)
[i] United States National Archives www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving/ 11/14/2011.
[ii] Appelbaum, Diana Karter. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. New York, Facts on File, 1984.
[iii] Appelbaum, Diana Karter. Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. New York, Facts on File, 1984
[iv] Johnson, Allen & Malone, Dumas ed. Dictionary of American Biography Volume IV. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960: 111
[v] Johnson, Allen & Malone, Dumas ed. Dictionary of American Biography Volume IV. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960: 111
[vi] Johnson, Allen & Malone, Dumas ed. Dictionary of American Biography Volume IV. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960: 111
[vii] Godey, Louis Antoine & Sarah Josepha Buell Hale ed. Godey’s Lady's Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, Volume 34 from January – June 1847: 174.
[viii] Godey, Louis Antoine & Sarah Josepha Buell Hale ed. Godey’s Lady's Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, Volume 57 from July – Decemeber 1858: 463
[ix] Schenone, Laura. A Thousand Years Over A Hot Stove: A History Of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, And Remembrances. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004: 118