Sarah Josepha Hale
Middle Class Values, New England Virtues, and A New National Holiday
In 1878, Thomas Edison leaned in towards a microphone and spoke the first words ever to be recorded. The words that he chose to be immortalized in that first recording were from a children’s poem. Although the original recording was lost, below you can hear a recording made in 1927 in which Edison recalls making history with that poem.
If Sarah Josepha Hale was going to be remembered for just one thing, it’s hard to know which accomplishment she would choose for the history books. Like most women of the era, in the end a man would ultimately get to decide which parts of her legacy would be enshrined in the public memory. Thomas Edison chose to make “Mary Had A Little Lamb” the first words ever recorded by man, but not because Hale asked for her poem to be so enshrined. When recalling that day in 1878, Edison expressed his bewilderment when his device actually worked, saying, “I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” At least that sentiment, perhaps, Hale might recognize.
Born in Newport, New Hampshire, Sarah Josepha Buell was fortunate to have parents that believed in equal education for boys and girls. However, since wider society at the time did not share in those beliefs, Sarah was homeschooled in equal parts by her mother and by her brother, Horatio, who attended Dartmouth College and brought home his knowledge to share. These experiences imbued Sarah with a deep respect for education and she became a schoolteacher herself. In 1811, she met David Hale, a lawyer, and the two were married in 1813. Over the course of the next eight years Sarah gave birth to five children. Then, in 1822, shortly after the birth of her last child, David Hale died. Sarah was so grief-stricken she wore black for 57 years until her own death in 1879.
It’s apparent that Sarah missed her husband very much, but it’s also hard to not notice how things changed for Sarah after his death. She had been a quiet, unassuming woman entirely devoted to hearth and home until 1822. Then, only a year after her husband’s death, Sarah published her first book, launching her into a new chapter of her life as a financially and intellectually independent person. That first book of poetry, The Genius of Oblivion, was followed four years later by Northwood: Life North and South, which discussed the plight of African slaves in the U.S., not only making her one of the first people to write a novel about slavery, but also one of the first female novelists in the country.
In the book, Hale wrote enthusiastically about the notion of sending African slaves to freedom in Liberia. Even though we now recognize the flaws in their logic, at the time the Liberia plan was seen as a sound one by most abolitionists. Hale also went on to describe her reasons for supporting abolition, which not only pertained to the evil treatment of fellow humans, but also because she believed that engaging in the practice of slavery would degrade the morality of white men and prevent the nation from progressing forward.
By 1828, Hale’s talents as a writer were widely recognized and she was approached by Reverend John Blake who implored her to move to Boston to become the editor of his journal, The Ladies’ Magazine. Hale enthusiastically accepted, although, she made it clear that she much preferred to be called an “editress,” lest anyone be confused by her gender. It was in that magazine that Hale published her collection, Poems for Our Children, in which “Mary’s Lamb” was featured. Hale enjoyed her work with the magazine, especially since she believed that it was beneficial to its female readership. She was an early advocate of equal education for women, believing as her own parents did that men and women should receive an entirely equal education. And yet, for women, Hale believed, there were limits to what could be done with that education.
Even though Hale had published a book that was designed to spark tough conversations about an explosive political topic, Hale wrote that women should confine their writing to dainty subjects that would shape the morality of society. She hoped that through the written word women would be a force of peace and stability fully separate from the partisan political divides that preoccupied their men. Hale also drew a line at where a woman could receive such an education, advocating for all-women’s colleges. In fact, she helped to found Vassar College, one of the first elite women’s colleges in the U.S., which gave an exemplary education to generations of girls. But what were women to do with their education once it was received? Hale had a somewhat mixed opinion about that.
In 1837, The Ladies’ Magazine was bought out by Louis Antoine Godey, and the journal became Godey’s Lady’s Book. Of course, Hale was invaluable to the publication and Godey eagerly offered her a position as lead editor. While Hale believed that a woman’s primary domain should be domestic, she valued her career and advocated for the entry of women into the workforce. She published a section in the magazine designed to help women find employment. However, to Hale there was a difference between employment and suitable employment. According to Hale, a woman’s most vital role in society was to provide a virtuous, nurturing presence, which limited female job-seekers to writing, teaching, and service work.
Despite her adamant support of equal education, Hale was vehemently opposed to women’s suffrage, saying that the, “secret, silent influence of women” was a more practical and effective way for women to wield power since they could sway the male voters. Perhaps, from Hale’s perspective, influencing public thought seemed more feasible than it did to most women. As the editor of a widely circulated magazine Hale was regarded as a key arbiter of the nation’s tastes. She was attributed with influencing everything from fashion, to literature, to architecture.
Like Edison, Hale was no stranger to pursuing an ambition that took some time to come to fruition. Her life was not an easy one and she had to work seemingly endless hours to fill the pages of the magazines she edited, sometimes personally writing half of the material in a given edition. Yet, one of her longest lasting ambitions was to see the country that she loved brought together in peace, and this is one area in which her words and her deeds align. As early as the 1820s Hale saw the growing divisions in the country and devoted herself to preserving the Union.
During her time at Godey’s magazine she made a point to publish American authors when most magazines simply reprinted articles from Britain, and she had a particular fondness for stories about Northerners and Southerners working together or falling in love. Then Hale had an idea about how to truly bring the nation together. At the time there were only two recognized national holidays - Independence Day and George Washington’s Birthday - and starting in 1846 Hale began campaigning for a new one. It took 17 years and letters to five different presidents before Sarah’s dream was realized. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln took her advice and supported legislation to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Some stories are messier than others. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile a person’s words with their actions. Sometimes we can get frustrated by an historical figure that seemed to move forward and stay in the same place at the same time. Sarah Josepha Hale led a life of knotted moral reasoning that’s difficult for a modern historian to untie. On the one hand, she held a nearly unprecedented position of influence for a woman of her time, but used her platform to encourage women against climbing too high. She organized, and petitioned, and built monuments to last generations, but still encouraged women to silence. Her motivations stemmed from her time and place, and since we can’t have her explain her rationale to us now, all we can do is recognize her for the gifts that she gave to the future.