Lincoln and Thanksgiving: The Origin of an American Holiday

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Nov 19, 2018

The very first Thanksgiving happened almost 400 years ago—long before the nation was born. How did it evolve into America’s quintessential national holiday? Credit largely goes to two people—one, a name you know; the other, you’ve probably never heard—but should. Melanie Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, gives us the run-down on how a harvest party between Pilgrims and Indians became our oldest national tradition.

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The legacy of Thanksgiving was enshrined by Lincoln, who wanted it to be a source of unity in the midst of trying and divisive times.

  • President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation was the first in what became an unbroken string of annual proclamations by every subsequent president.View Source
  • In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation making Thanksgiving an official national holiday.View Source
  • Thanksgiving is a source of unity in the midst of trying and divisive times. Even in the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln called on every American to celebrate Thanksgiving “with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”View Source
  • Related reading: “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience” – Melanie KirkpatrickView Source

Americans have always had a keen sense they have been blessed by Providence. That’s why Thanksgiving is America’s oldest tradition. 

  • In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated the first harvest in the New World, the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday, America’s oldest tradition.View Source
  • The Pilgrims felt they had been blessed by Providence, and so did subsequent generations of Americans, who followed in their lead in dedicating a day to giving thanks.View Source
  • George Washington first inaugurated a national “day of public Thanksgiving and Praise.”View Source
  • The case for a National Day of Thanksgiving took hold in a more unified way nationally during the Civil War.View Source

At the height of the Civil War, Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, reminding Americans that even amid strife we are blessed. 

  • In the autumn of 1863—at the height of the Civil War, when Americans were bitterly divided—Abraham Lincoln nevertheless called for a day of national Thanksgiving.View Source
  • Lincoln's proclamation was printed in Harper’s Bazaar to help spread the word.View Source
  • Lincoln began his proclamation this way: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”View Source
  • In the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln called on Americans to give thanks.View Source

Lincoln’s decision to call for a national Thanksgiving came at the urging of an accomplished magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale. 

  • Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor of Ladies’ Magazine, a highly influential periodical of the time, and the first female editor of a magazine.View Source
  • One of Hale’s many accomplishments was writing the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”View Source
  • Hale viewed Thanksgiving as a celebration of Americana and patriotism.View Source
  • For two decades, Hale conducted a campaign to consolidate public support for a national Thanksgiving holiday.View Source
  • Hale published fiction and poems with a Thanksgiving Day theme.View Source
  • Hale even offered her readers recipes for traditional Thanksgiving dishes, such as roast turkey and pumpkin pie.View Source

Influential magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale worked tirelessly and overcame many obstacles to promote a national day of Thanksgiving. 

  • By the 1840s, many states had established an annual day of Thanksgiving, but the date varied widely from state to state.View Source
  • Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce, all rejected Sarah Josepha Hale’s proposal for Thanksgiving.View Source
  • Hale proposed the last Thursday in November, George Washington’s date, for the national holiday.View Source
  • Hale’s letter to President Abraham Lincoln convinced him to declare a day of Thanksgiving.View Source
  • WATCH: Thanksgiving, the holiday at the heart of the American Experience: Melanie KirkpatrickView Source

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1621, 53 men, women and children celebrated their first harvest in the New World. The great Indian chief, Massasoit, brought 90 of his men to the three-day party. From all reports, a good time was had by all.

How did this event, which happened almost 400 years ago, become a part of the American story and our oldest national tradition?

Credit goes to many people, but two stand out. One you know, and one you should know: Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Josepha Hale.

More on both in a moment.

As a religious people, Americans have always had a keen sense they have been blessed by Providence. The pilgrims certainly felt this, and so did subsequent generations, including George Washington. Washington was the first president to declare a national day of public thanksgiving and praise. But it wasn’t until the Civil War that the idea of a national Day of Thanksgiving fully took hold.

In the autumn of 1863—at the height of the Civil War, when Americans were bitterly divided—Abraham Lincoln nevertheless called for a day of national thanksgiving.

Lincoln began his proclamation this way: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” It was an extraordinary way to characterize 1863—the bloodiest year of the war.

But even “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled severity and magnitude,” Lincoln continued, the nation had much to be thankful for and much to look forward to. The day was coming when America would again be united and experience, as Lincoln put it, “a large increase of freedom.” It was a profoundly hopeful message, reminding Americans of their nation's capacity for renewal.

Lincoln’s decision to call for a national Thanksgiving came at the urging of a far-sighted and persistent magazine editor who believed such a celebration would have a “deep moral influence” on the American character. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale. More than any single person, she is the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving today.

By the 1840s, many states had established an annual day of thanksgiving, but the date varied widely from state to state. Hale saw the value of a day in which the entire nation celebrated as one.

For two decades, she conducted a campaign to consolidate public support for her idea. As the influential editor of one of the most popular periodicals of the 19th century, year after year she wrote columns making the case for the holiday; she published fiction and poems with a Thanksgiving Day theme; and she offered her readers recipes for traditional Thanksgiving dishes such as roast turkey and pumpkin pie. And, by the way, she also wrote the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Presidents Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce, to whom she had written letters, showed little interest in her cause. But Lincoln saw its potential. His proclamation was the first in what became an unbroken string of annual Thanksgiving proclamations by every subsequent president. 

Congress finally sealed the deal in 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation making Thanksgiving an official national holiday.

Lincoln and Hale believed the act of expressing gratitude had tremendous healing power. In his Thanksgiving proclamation, Lincoln spoke not as commander-in-chief of the Union forces, but as president of the entire nation—North and South. He made no reference to “rebels” or “enemies.” Rather, the president spoke of “the whole American people.”

It’s a message that resonates today, when Americans, even within families, are divided over issues of politics and culture. Thanksgiving, our nation’s oldest tradition, brings us together just as it brought the pilgrims and Indians together in 1621. Lincoln said it best when he called on every American to celebrate Thanksgiving “with one heart and one voice.”

Thanksgiving gives us a moment to focus on the blessings of being Americans, on the prosperity, security and freedom we enjoy. If Lincoln could focus on these blessings in the middle of the Civil War, we should certainly be able to do so today.

Here’s a suggestion: at this year’s Thanksgiving table, ask everyone to spend a minute to say what they are grateful for. I suspect you’ll find your guests will have a long and eloquent list. And if they don’t, you can help them out: suggest they start with family, friends, and living in the freest country in the world.

After all, if we don’t give thanks, what’s the point of Thanksgiving?

I’m Melanie Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, for Prager University.

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