Did Abraham Lincoln "steal" Thanksgiving Day from the states? And was he merely a hired thug for the woman best known for a nursery rhyme?
Before 1863, observing Thanksgiving fell to the province of the states. Having an annual day of thanks was controversial for many reasons; while Puritan in the making, Puritans such as Judge Samuel Sewall, who famously sentenced 19 people to death for witchcraft, feared people would feel entitled to the Lord's bounty with an annual event. Some argued that a day of prayer should be called by the church, not civil authorities.
Mary had a little mission
By the time Lincoln became president, however, many states in the Union (and even in places before they were states, like California and Oregon) had observed some form of Thanksgiving. The dates varied anywhere from September to January. Yankees, being an orderly lot, found this indiscriminate calendaring rather irksome. Especially bothered was one Sarah Josepha Hale, a novelist, magazine editor, and the poet who penned a ditty called "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The "editress" of Lady's Book — which had the widest circulation of any magazine — used her influence to make the last Thursday in November a national observance.
Her unrelenting campaign started in 1846, according to Diana Karter Applebaum's "Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History." Hale petitioned governors, missionaries, ministers, and no less than five presidents, and the fifth — Lincoln — was a charm. Ironically, while she had long pitched Thanksgiving as something to bring the Union together, Lincoln's secretary of state William Seward pitched the idea as snatching a state prerogative — a notion that appealed to Lincoln's sense of humor.
"They say, Mr. President, that we are stealing away the rights of the States. So I have come to-day to advise you, that there is another State right I think we ought to steal." Raising his head from his pile of papers, Lincoln asked, "Well, Governor, what do you want to steal now?" Seward replied, "The right to name Thanksgiving Day!" He explained that at present, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days at the discretion of each state's governor. Why not make it a national holiday? Lincoln immediately responded that he supposed a president "had as good a right to thank God as a Governor." Seward then presented Lincoln with a proclamation that invited citizens "in every part of the United States," at sea, or abroad, "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November" to give thanks to "our beneficent Father." ("Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Doris Kearns Goodwin)
Lincoln's approval (well, actually Seward wrote the proclamation) may have been politically motivated, but that's inherent in the holiday itself. Besides the aforementioned arguing Puritans, abolitionist evangelical Protestant ministers -- like the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe ("Uncle Tom's Cabin") -- would deliver sermons against slave ownership on Thanksgiving.
Opposition to Thanksgiving also fell along abolitionist lines. Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise, a slave owner and states' rights advocate, replied tartly to Hale's letter urging Virginia to adopt Thanksgiving.
This theatrical claptrap of Thanksgiving has aided other causes [i.e., abolition] in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching 'Christian politics' instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified. ("Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History," Diana Karter Applebaum)
Hale herself urged readers, in the November 1859 issue of Lady's Book, to honor Thanksgiving as a way of honoring the United States of America.
This last Thursday in November--will it not be a great day in our Republic? Seventy years ago the political union of the United States was consummated; in 1789, the thirteen individual States, then forming the American Confederacy, because, by the ratification of the Constitution, over the forming of which Washington himself presided, the United American Nation ... If every State should join in union thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States... ("Thanksgiving," Applebaum)
Proclamation into law
Lincoln's proclamation was the first of many, but Thanksgiving wasn't an official holiday until 1941, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt — and only because he had caused a huge ruckus when he had moved the date a week earlier for Washington, D.C.
A transcription of Hale's Sept. 28, 1863, letter to Lincoln, by the way, is available online through the Library of Congress. In honor of Thanksgiving, Lincoln, and Hale, here's a little twist: the last verse (yes, there are many) to "Mary Had a Little Lamb," written in 1830.
"What makes the lamb love Mary so,"
The little children cry;
"O, Mary loves the lamb you know,"
The Teacher did reply,
"And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are always kind."
See the trailer to 'Lincoln':