The First Turkey Pardoned By a President

The U.S. Constitution gives the President virtually unlimited authority to grant pardons to anyone facing federal charges. Except for William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, all of the nation’s chief executives have exercised that privilege. Each time the President intervenes and wipes someone’s record clean, it has generated controversy and accusations of playing politics.

Well, maybe not every time. Every year there is an opportunity for the President to spare someone’s neck from literally landing on the chopping block. We refer to the annual Thanksgiving practice of pardoning a turkey.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This space is reserved for you to insert the name of your favorite political villain and make your own joke about which turkey is likely to be given clemency next.

This rare moment of nonpartisan celebration traces its origins to the most divisive time in US history. It was 1863, and the country was in the worst days of the Civil War.

The White House is the home of the President, but in those days there was another member of the Lincoln family who ruled the roost: Tad Lincoln. He was 8 years old when his father became president. The youngest of the four sons born to Abraham and Mary Lincoln, he was his father’s delight.

Tad and Abraham Lincoln

The president’s secretary, John Hay, wrote of Tad: “He had a very bad opinion of books and no opinion of discipline.” Tad had free rein at the White House and took full advantage of his position as “First Kid.” Some of the things he did while residing at the executive mansion included trying to sell some of his parents’ clothes at an unauthorized yard sale, riding a goat-pulled chair through the halls, and spraying dignitaries with fire hoses. One politician, upon leaving the White House, described his interaction with Tad by saying he had “just had an interview with the tyrant of the White House.”

Despite his precociousness, Tad had some endearing qualities, as well. He took it upon himself to raise money for the United States Sanitary Commission — the Civil War equivalent of the Red Cross. He promised to introduce White House guests to his father for the low fee of five cents. The money went to support his favorite charity. When the interruptions became too much for his father, Tad changed tactics. He set up a food vendor’s stand in the White House lobby, selling beef jerky and fruit to those who were waiting for appointments.

Like his father, he was an animal lover. When, in 1863, someone gave the President a gift of a turkey as the centerpiece of the First Family’s holiday meal, Tad was different plans for the animal. He named it Jack and adopted it as his pet. Jack could be seen following Tad around the White House grounds.

On Christmas Eve, the President broke the news to his son that although Jack would be joining the family the next day for dinner, it would not be as a guest. “Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten for this very Christmas,” he told Tad, who answered, “I can’t help it. He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed.”

Tad argued passionately on behalf of the bird. Lincoln had a soft spot anyway for those who requested pardons from him. His love of animals and his tendency to let his son have what he wanted prevailed. The president gave in to his son, writing a reprieve for the turkey on a card and handing it to Tad.

Jack remained at the White House for another year. On election day in 1864, Abraham Lincoln spotted the bird among soldiers who were lining up to vote. Lincoln playfully asked his son if the turkey would be voting too, and Tad answered, “Oh no. He isn’t of age yet.”

Although the first presidential pardon of a turkey was at Christmas, Lincoln has a close association with Thanksgiving. It was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1863, after Abraham Lincoln’s presidential proclamation. He set the date as the last Thursday in November.

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