A Thanksgiving Editorial: We should all aim to be like Sarah Hale

Published 11:22 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The letters just kept coming. Year after year, decade after decade. Sarah Hale never stopped, despite being ignored. She wrote to members of Congress, U.S. presidents, basically anyone who she thought could help. She was somewhat of a celebrity, thanks to her poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” which became the basis for the song of the same name. As a result, she knew they would at least pick up and read the letters, if not act on them. 

But unfortunately, no one acted. For 40 years, she kept trying, over and over, wanting to make what she saw as a simple but needed change. See, she had a simple belief. Sarah Hale wanted to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, a time to set aside disagreements and instead reflect on all we’ve been given. That was it, that was her idea. And in peacetime, everyone found reasons to ignore it. But then, the nation went to war with itself. 

The Civil War was still raging that day in 1863 when one of her letters made it to the White House and into the hands of President Abraham Lincoln. I’d like to think it made the man chuckle at least. As a war raged between states, as battles went on all around, here was a poet asking him to create a new national holiday, one where people would be asked to consider what they have to be thankful for. 

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And as it stood, President Lincoln agreed with Sarah Hale. In his own letter, a proclamation that went through the country, Lincoln talked about peace, about how thankful everyone should be to be alive at that moment, pointed out some things he was thankful for and talked about the hope for an end to the war. 

“In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict,” Lincoln wrote. “Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

Now, let’s put this into perspective. As Lincoln wrote his proclamation, the Chattanooga campaign was going on, a series of battles through Tennessee that stretched from Nov. 23 to Nov. 25 and ended with a Union victory, as Gen. Grant defeated Braxton Bragg. That was the atmosphere in which people read Lincoln’s words, with daily reports of troops advancing or retreating, of armies marching. 

Lincoln didn’t try to deny any of that. But even so, he argued Americans in 1863 had plenty to be thankful for. More than that, he reminded people that “no human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.” 

The blessings which we have, they didn’t just appear, they weren’t created by man, but given as gifts from God, the president added. These were gifts and we should thank the giver. And so, he called on everyone, both on the battlefield and at home, to set aside the last Thursday of November as a time to give thanks.

Lincoln understood, much as Mrs. Hale in her repeated letters, the need to be thankful, to understand and appreciate everything we’ve been given, as it’s not promised forever. President Lincoln had been reminded of this through the loss of his wife and son. Mrs. Hale, years before, reflected on this after losing her husband and supporting five children.

Sadly, they were ignored. In fact, states didn’t agree on a nationwide Thanksgiving until the 1870s. At that point, Sarah Hale was in her 80s. President Lincoln had been assassinated as the war came to an end. The lessons they taught, however, are things still worth considering today, as we sit down with friends and family. Sure, there’s football on the tv and a big meal being prepared, but we have other things to be thankful for, including life and the ability to share it with our loved ones.

So maybe, just for a second or two, let’s take time out on this holiday. Maybe, in the middle of heated political fights and multiple wars overseas, as we argue over what caused inflation and who’s to blame for high gas prices, we can find time to reflect, as just Lincoln and Mrs. Hale did. 

The Herald staff wishes a Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, wherever the day finds you.