Sitting down to dinner on Thursday, those giving thanks might remember Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
It was Hale--editor, poet, novelist and one of the most influential women in 19th-Century America--who persuaded Abraham Lincoln that Thanksgiving should be declared a national holiday.
For 36 years, from 1827 until 1863, Hale wrote letters to members of Congress, to governors and Presidents promoting the day as an annual celebration, and championed the idea further in editorials for American Ladies’ Magazine and later in Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Many states followed her suggestion, setting aside a special day to give thanks each November. But Hale finally saw her dream come true 125 years ago this month, during the height of the Civil War, when President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday.
It originated with the Pilgrims in 1621 when William Bradford, governor of Plimoth Plantation, called for a day of prayer and thanksgiving. In New England, it became a traditional holiday following the annual harvesting of crops.
George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a one-time holiday in 1789. But Hale’s efforts to make the turkey feast and family reunion official have been mostly forgotten.
Though unfamiliar to most Americans, she was among the foremost pioneers of women’s rights in the United States and author of the novel “Northwood,” one of the first books dealing with slavery in this country.
Championed Women’s Causes
It was published in 1827, 25 years before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the same year Hale became editor of American Ladies’ Magazine, a position she held for nine years. She spent the next 41 years editing Godey’s Lady’s Book, read by 500,000 subscribers nationwide.
Both magazines championed women’s causes, including better working conditions and higher wages. Hale deplored the fact that girls were prohibited from going to school, and waged vigorous campaigns for their education at a time when the vast majority were illiterate.
In the biography, “Sarah Josepha Hale, a New England Pioneer,” published in 1985 by Tompson & Rutter Inc., author Sherbrooke Roger quotes one of Hale’s editorials from the August, 1837, edition Godey’s Lady’s Book:
“We cannot learn, neither can we teach, by a sort of magic peculiar to ourselves; give us the facilities for education enjoyed by the other sex, and we shall at least be able to try what are the capabilities of women.”
At the age of 88, Hale published the 36-volume “Woman’s Record, Sketches of Distinguished Women,” profiles of more than 2,000 outstanding women from ancient times through the late 1800s. She was 90 when she wrote her final editorial in Godey’s Lady’s Book, titled “To my country women.” She died a year later in 1879.
Sarah Josepha Buell was born in this New Hampshire mill town on Oct. 24, 1788. Educated by her mother, Martha Buell, Sarah Buell became a teacher in a Newport private school when she was 18. It was there that one of her students, a girl named Mary, was followed to school by her pet lamb, inspiring Hale’s classic poem. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” appeared in 1830.
Her marriage to Newport attorney David Hale produced five children and lasted nine years until his death from pneumonia in 1822. Widowed at 34, she never remarried but supported her family as a writer and editor.
Hale’s memory lives on in Newport, population 6,500, where each year a bronze medal bearing her name and portrait is presented in recognition of “distinguished work in the field of letters.”
Who’s Who in Literature
The Sarah Josepha Hale Award has been given to a virtual Who’s Who of the literary world, beginning with the first recipient poet Robert Frost in 1956. Among the 32 medal winners: John P. Marquand, Archibald MacLeish, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, John Hersey, Ogden Nash, Elizabeth Yates, Louis Untermeyer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Norman Cousins, Henry Steele Commager, Roger Tory Peterson, Barbara Tuchman and Stephen Jay Gould.
The award stipulates recipients must appear in person to receive the medal and speak at Newport’s Richards Free Library.
Only one person--President John Fitzgerald Kennedy--reluctantly turned the award down because of a prior commitment. In his place, writer John Hersey accepted the Sarah Josepha Hale Award on Nov. 22, 1963, the day the President was killed in Dallas.