While much of our mainstream historical memory of Thanksgiving focuses on pilgrims and the Wampanoag eating together in 17th-century Plymouth, this omits a crucial chapter in Thanksgiving’s genealogy.
Not until the mid-19th century did the notion of a fixed and national Thanksgiving celebration enter popular discourse in a serious and sustained way. And no one person did more to promote such a vision than novelist and editor Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, known by her hagiographers today as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”
Hale mobilized white racial fears in the antebellum era through the language of colonization to build support for a holiday with the capacity to transcend sectional discord. In the process, she portrayed a unified America as a country of white people — an idea that remains embedded in the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday.
In 1827, Hale first published “Northwood,” a novel that explored themes of nationhood, patriotism, faith, regional identity, race, gender and slavery. In “Northwood’s” 1852 reprint, Hale dedicated countless passages to extolling the virtues of establishing a fixed and uniform national Thanksgiving celebration.
One conversation between two of Hale’s characters — Mr. Frankford and Squire Romelee — is particularly illustrative:
“‘Is Thanksgiving Day universally observed in America?’ Inquired Mr. Frankford.”
“Not yet, but I trust it will become so. We have too few holidays. Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, should be considered a national festival, and observed by all the people … we want it as the exponent of our Republican institutions.”
In Hale’s view, nationalizing Thanksgiving at a time of growing domestic crisis would help to legitimize and project the strength and stability of U.S. political institutions internationally. By linking Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July and then to the celebration of republican institutions, one might surmise that Hale also believed the addition of such a national holiday would demonstrate to the world the country’s commitment to liberty.
Yet her conception of “all of the people” who would observe this holiday excluded at least one group: free black people, as she made clear in an 1830 article titled “Fourth of July” that appeared in the Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette. In that piece, Hale wrote that “it should not be urged to have the slaves set at liberty till they can be sent to their own land, because they never can be free here.”
Though Hale was decidedly anti-slavery, her solution to the “peculiar institution” — spoken through “Northwood” protagonist Sidney Romelee — was to permit the enslaved to buy their freedom and then repatriate them to Africa. Through Romelee, Hale argued that such post-emancipation colonization was a necessary precondition for black freedom because “the Anglo-American will be master over the Negro, if the latter is near him. So I am intending to help colonize Liberia.” For the sake of both black and white prosperity and safety, national separation was the only acceptable formula.
These twin pillars of thinking — a national Thanksgiving celebration and colonization — guided Hale’s advocacy throughout the middle decades of the 19th century, often in her role as editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, a periodical with a circulation of at least 150,000 by the eve of the Civil War. Hale regularly published entries entreating public support for the Thanksgiving holiday while she lobbied state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation creating a fixed, universal, national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November.
Hale’s vigorous advocacy for nationalizing Thanksgiving for the sake of a “complete moral and social reunion of the people of America” was rivaled only by her uncompromising advocacy for the removal of free black people from the United States. In 1853, Hale published her second novel, “Liberia; or, Mr. Peyton’s Experiments.” Literary theorist Etsuko Taketani describes Hale’s novel as “a paradigmatic colonizationist text of the antebellum period, offering insight not only into one U.S. woman’s commitment to the colonizationist cause, but also into that period’s deeply intertwined politics of colonization and nationalism.”
“Liberia” features a Virginia slave owner named Mr. Peyton, who is fictionalized as a founding member of the American Colonization Society (ACS), an actual organization established in 1816 in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of “returning” free black people to Africa, and in particular, Liberia.
Hale depicted Peyton as a benevolent enslaver who decided to free some of his human chattel for their years of loyalty and faithful service. After Peyton attempted emancipation within the United States, however, he concluded that freed slaves became “a burden and a drain” on American society “whenever the conduct of their life is given in their own hands.” Because of what Peyton perceives as their lack of intelligence and capacity for self-government, his solution is to ensure that the people he formerly enslaved were sent to Liberia.
Hale saw these two currents of advocacy as dovetailing because only a homogeneous nation — a white nation — could have the sort of bond that she dreamed of Thanksgiving fostering. Writing on the precipice of the Civil War, Hale noted that a national Thanksgiving holiday will “bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy north to the sunny South that we are one family, each member of a great and free Nation.”
Antebellum readers of “Northwood” and “Liberia” as well as Godey’s Lady’s Book — which regularly reprinted colonizationist sermons — would have recognized the relationship of Hale’s indefatigable advocacy for a national Thanksgiving holiday and her uncompromising commitment to the removal of free black people from the United States — without the latter, her ideal vision for Thanksgiving was impossible.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Hale redoubled her efforts by petitioning white Americans to “put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” in service of establishing a unifying national holiday.
And it was during the war that Hale finally succeeded in her decades-long campaign to enact a national Thanksgiving. She penned a letter to President Abraham Lincoln (himself an avowed colonizationist) and his secretary of state, William Seward, on Sept. 28, 1863, urging them to declare a national Thanksgiving.
Whether Lincoln was naturally predisposed to Hale’s campaign before receiving her letter is unknown. What is known is that within a week, the secretary of state had drafted Lincoln’s official proclamation establishing the national observation of Thanksgiving on the final Thursday of November, an intervention the two hoped would “heal the wounds of the nation.” (The date of the observance fluctuated in minor ways during the 1930s and 1940s but returned to the fourth Thursday of November by congressional resolution in fall 1941.)
While this history is largely forgotten from mainstream retellings of Thanksgiving, it is crucial to remember because it forces us to face and address the insidious tie between whiteness and our conception of the United States that is often reflected in the very foundation of our national holidays. Recognizing these roots is one important step in rescuing the Thanksgiving holiday from its many fictions.