The Little Woman Who Started the Big Holiday

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When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” he was reported to have said, “So you are the little woman who started the big war.” He fully comprehended the influence of her book — turning the national tide against slavery and making the war inevitable.
Lincoln placed a lot of weight on Stowe’s influence and that of other women who advised him, whether the advice was solicited or not. Once such female advisor was an 11-year-old girl who wrote him a letter when he was running for president, suggesting he would look a lot better if he had a beard. Lincoln grew a beard, and it did improve his looks.

His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, advised him during their courtship and throughout their marriage, especially when it came to political matters. When he won the presidential election in 1860, Abe said, “Mary, Mary, we are elected!”

Another persistent (if unsolicited) female advisor was Sarah Josepha Hale, a remarkable woman who was unrelenting in her drive to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. As it turns out, Thanksgiving was declared a holiday by numerous presidents in various ways, but Lincoln was the first to make it a national holiday by proclamation.

Sarah Josepha Hale was a woman ahead of her time. Her mother insisted that she get a good education through home schooling, since colleges would not accept women at that time. When her brother went to Dartmouth, he shared his textbooks with her. At age 18, she began teaching school. Six years later, she married David Hale, an intellectual who shared her scholarly interests; the two studied and wrote together. When her husband died two weeks before their fifth child was born, she had to figure out how to support herself and her children.

She started a women’s magazine, which she used as a forum for promoting women’s rights, including equal pay and property rights for women. Then she became the editor of “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” keeping that job for 40 years. It had a following of 150,000 — huge for that time. She also wrote cookbooks, children stories and poems, including “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She was influential in the founding of Vassar College for women, raising funds to construct the Bunker Hill Monument in Massachusetts and saving George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon.

Hale’s family had always celebrated Thanksgiving with an elaborate feast and she promoted the holiday in her magazines and in her novel, “Northwood.” When war broke out, she urged both the North and South to celebrate Thanksgiving. Finally, after many letters to Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward drafted an official proclamation in October of 1863, assigning the last Thursday of November for the national observation of Thanksgiving. In making the proclamation in the midst of the last year of the Civil War, Lincoln said he hoped this holiday would “heal the wounds of the nation.”

In “Northwood,” Hale described a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast similar to the one she had enjoyed with her own family: “The roasted turkey took precedence … and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing.” The rest of the meal included “a sirloin of beef, a leg of pork and loin of mutton, gravy and vegetables, a goose and a pair of ducklings, chicken pie, plates of pickles and preserves, wheat bread, sweetmeats, fruits and wine, cider and ginger beer, plum pudding, custards and pies including pumpkin pie.”

Hungry yet? And just think of the leftovers …

Happy Thanksgiving!

Owner and broker of the largest woman-owned and woman-run real estate firm in the Washington metropolitan area, Donna Evers is the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted student of Washington-area history. Reach her at devers@eversco.com.

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