ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thanksgiving before 1863 was something of a moveable feast, with states honoring the holiday at various times or not at all. But as the Civil War dragged on, Abraham Lincoln found himself looking for ways to unite the country.
As New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports, a prominent magazine editor persuaded Lincoln to declare a national holiday.
TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Sarah Josepha Hale, born 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire, was a prolific writer. Biographies, cookbooks, novels, editorials, and volumes of poetry, including the children's rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." She would use that same pen to crusade for her other lasting legacy, a national Thanksgiving.
Hale re-enactor Sharon Wood recites a persuasive passage.
SHARON WOOD: (as Sarah Josepha Hale) The last Thursday of November has these advantages: harvests of all kinds are gathered in; summer travelers have returned to their homes; the diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some portions of our country, have ceased, and all are prepared to enjoy a day of Thanksgiving.
BOOKMAN: The holiday wasn't Hale's only interest. As editor of "Godey's Lady's Book," one of the most widely read magazines of the pre-Civil War era, she had the perfect soapbox for other causes. Hale called on women to cook nutritious meals and run a sanitary, well-decorated household. She published the works of writers like Longfellow, Hawthorne and Poe. And she championed education for girls, though New Hampshire historian Stu Wallace says Hale stopped short of campaigning for women's equality.
STU WALLACE: She often would say: Well, it is a degrading idea that women should be more like men. She said that is an absurd idea. It's as if you are equating the beauty of porcelain to the strength of iron.
BOOKMAN: For Hale, it was always Thanksgiving that required the most strength and dedication. Her handwritten letters landed on the desks of Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan - all to no avail.
It was Lincoln she would finally persuade, her request arriving just months after the Battle of Gettysburg.
WALLACE: We had slaughtered ourselves in unknown numbers and the nation had divided itself terribly. And so, Lincoln himself was looking for something to bring us back together again.
WOOD: (as Sarah Josepha Hale) Philadelphia, September the 28th, 1863. Sir. Permit me, as editress of the "Lady's Book," to request a few minutes of your precious time...
WALLACE: She wrote to Lincoln basically saying, Look, I have long advocated a day of Thanksgiving, a national day, where we all come together as a nation. And we really need to do this finally.
WOOD: (as Sarah Josepha Hale) It now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.
BOOKMAN: One hundred and fifty years ago, Sarah Josepha Hale got her wish. Lincoln proclaimed that Americans should observe the last Thursday of November, 1863, as a day to heal the wounds of a nation. From Maine to Mexico, from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea, Hale wrote, the hymn of Thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised. After decades of work, the table was finally set.
For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, New Hampshire.
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