Most of us know that the modern day of Thanksgiving was declared by President Abraham Lincoln. But what we don't know as much about is the story behind the story, the dynamics that led to Lincoln's proclamation.

Did you know it was related to the nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb?"

A Thanksgiving read:

Sarah J. Hale was born in New Hampshire and during her lifetime, became an influential writer and editor.

Her parents believed that girls should get the same education opportunity as boys, something that was rare in the late 1700s and early 1800s when Sarah was a child. (She later helped found Vassar College for girls.)

She was first a school teacher and then married in 1811 to David Hale. Tragically, he died in 1822 and Sarah wore black the rest of her life in mourning him.

In 1822, Sarah wrote her first book, a collection of poems. Five years later, she wrote her first novel, one of the first of that genre written in America by a woman and one of the first to be written about slavery.

Sarah was an abolitionist and called for slaves to be freed and sent to Libera in Africa, something that was popular in the 1800s. Further, Sarah pointed out in her novel that slavery not only dehumanized the slave, but also the master who was damaged by the slavery system and it moral weakness.

Hale soon became a magazine editor, first in Boston and later in Philadelphia for two popular women's magazines. Her writings are said to have been a strong influence on American culture and fashions of that era. And unlike many other magazines, she published a lot of American writers and women writers.

In 1830, Sarah published a children's book of poems, one of which was Mary Had a Little Lamb. The popular rhyme has become deeply ingrained in American culture since she wrote it.


Although Sarah Hale was in some respects a "modern" woman of her era in advocating for women's education, working in a publishing world dominated by men and calling for abolishing slavery, she also had a conservative streak.

Sarah didn't believe that women should vote or get directly involved in politics; rather, she advocated that women use their morality to influence men and the larger political culture. 

But Sarah did believe in a united American culture, especially between the North and the South. She reportedly wrote magazine articles about people from the North and South working together.

As a New Englander, she advocated for the morality and ethics of New England.

And that's where Thanksgiving comes into the picture.

Thanksgiving was mostly celebrate only in New England and the North in the early 1800s. Every state had its own dates for some kind of Thanksgiving and the holiday was rare in the South.

It's difficult to believe today, but the Founders of the United States weren't all in agreement on the holiday.

The first Thanksgiving was said to have been in 1621 by the Pilgrims, something taught to every school child. Over the next 160 years, it was an informal celebration.

While serving as the nation's first president, Georgia Washington issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789. Presidents John Adams and James Madison also issued either Thanksgiving or a Day of Fasting proclamations.

But as president, Thomas Jefferson didn't. In fact, Jefferson was opposed to Thanksgiving proclamations.

Jefferson saw a presidential proclamation for a day of Thanksgiving to be government promoting religion, something that he believed went against the First Amendment and echoed the former British rule over the colonies before the Revolution.


Despite Jefferson's view, Thanksgiving was popular in New England as Sarah Hale grew up there. In 1846, Sarah began lobbying for there to be a national day of Thanksgiving. She wrote about it in her magazine and in letters to several presidents of the era.

But nothing happened — until 1863.

Sarah wrote to President Lincoln promoting the idea. In the back of her mind, she probably thought a national day of Thanksgiving would help until the nation, which at the moment was being torn apart in the Civil War.

Lincoln was certainly thinking about the impact of the Civil War in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 and no doubt saw a national Thanksgiving as as way to help unite a fractured nation. (The proclamation was actually written by someone's, but Lincoln gets the credit.)


Today, we remember Lincoln's proclamation, but we've mostly forgotten Sarah Hale and her influence as the force behind our unique national holiday.

So when you raise a glass on Thursday to toast our national day of Thanksgiving, give a nod to Sarah J. Hale who give us both a popular children's nursery rhyme and a special national holiday.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at

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