Updated January 27, 2019
Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday in the United States until the fall of 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that the last Thursday in November would be a day of national thanksgiving.
While Lincoln issued the proclamation, credit for making Thanksgiving a national holiday should go to Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a popular magazine for women in 19th century America.
Hale's Campaign for Thanksgiving
Hale, who campaigned for years to make Thanksgiving a nationally observed holiday, wrote to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, and urged him to issue a proclamation. Hale mentioned in her letter that having such a national day of Thanksgiving would establish a "great Union Festival of America."
With the United States in the depths of the Civil War, perhaps Lincoln was attracted to the idea of a holiday unifying the nation. At that time Lincoln was also contemplating delivering an address on the purpose of the war, which would become the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln wrote a proclamation, which was issued on October 3, 1863. The New York Times published a copy of the proclamation two days later.
The idea seemed to catch on, and the northern states celebrated Thanksgiving on the date noted in Lincoln's proclamation, the last Thursday in November, which fell on November 26, 1863.
Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled 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; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, 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. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State