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Each year a pair of turkeys are brought to the White House for the president to pardon—to be spared from a deeply tanned appearance on the Executive dining room table. What most don’t know is that this national tradition was founded by the youngest member of the Lincoln family and helps shed light on the origins of Thanksgiving as a federal holiday.
While researching my new picture book, “The Magnificent Mischief of Tad Lincoln” I discovered that Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie caught a fever and died in the White House. Grief overwhelmed the entire family, even as the Civil War dragged on. To cope with their shared grief and sustain each other through some of the country’s darkest days, Abraham Lincoln and his youngest son, Tad became inseparable. Though White House staffers described ten-year old Tad as a “hellion” who regularly played pranks on his father and even hitched a goat to a dining room chair and sped through the East Room during parties, the President delighted in Tad’s hijinks and mischief.
Tad accompanied his father to major speeches, to review the troops and in the evening, reclined next to the president’s desk as Lincoln heard pardon requests—sometimes late into the night. Lincoln’s personal losses made him sympathetic to those who ventured to the White House; seeking clemency for a son who abandoned the war or begging for the return of confiscated properties. Lincoln’s cabinet hated for the president to hear these personal pardon requests -as he granted 82% of the cases he heard. Tad Lincoln, lying next to the desk watching his father extend mercy and forgiveness to those suffering during the brutal war, absorbed the lesson.
The year 1863 was a momentous one for the Lincolns. It was the year the President signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the enslaved people; the year he offered the Gettysburg Address; the year he granted the South full pardons and return of property if they rejoined the Union. It was also the year that an important turkey arrived at the White House at Christmastime.
Tad, who was still mourning the death of this older brother, befriended the bird and named him Jack. He taught the turkey tricks and walked him around the White House grounds on a leash. Tad had a playmate again. Then just before the holidays, the White House chef took Jack to the kitchen to prepare him for the Christmas feast. A shaken Tad scooped up his turkey and raced upstairs, barging into Lincoln’s Cabinet Room.
“That executioner in the kitchen means to kill Jack! It’s wicked. You can’t let him,” Tad cried. The President explained that the turkey had been sent to be eaten. “He’s a good turkey,” Tad protested. “You can’t let him die, paw.”
Moved by Tad’s pleadings, Lincoln reached for his pen and granted Jack the turkey a full reprieve of execution- and instituted the first White House Turkey Pardon. The same mercy and forgiveness that drove Lincoln to grant Tad his pardon also animated his efforts to unite the country.
That same year, Lincoln established Thanksgiving on the national calendar. Before that time, 21 of the 29 states celebrated the holiday, but there was no agreed upon date. Lincoln fixed that, proclaiming Thanksgiving as the “last Thursday of November.” But he did something more. He refashioned the day as a call for national unity predicated on forgiveness. Lincoln wrote:
“The Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” Then he called all citizens to “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience… 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, tranquility and Union.”
Oddly, the tradition of Presidential turkey pardons begins with Lincoln, but would take 100 years for another president to continue. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was presented with a turkey wearing a sign reading “Good Eating, Mr. President!” Kennedy felt pity on the bird. “Let’s keep him going. It’s our Thanksgiving present to him,” Kennedy said.
But the word “pardon” in reference to a turkey was not formally used in the modern era until 1987. When President Ronald Reagan received the annual holiday turkey at the White House, he was asked by a reporter if he intended to pardon aides involved in the Iran-Contra affair. Reagan pointed at the 55-pound bird, joking, “I’ll pardon him.” Every president since Reagan has formally pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey. Tad Lincoln’s legacy goes on.
So, this year when you see those Thanksgiving turkeys or view the White House pardon ceremony, think of Tad Lincoln and his pa who believed that mercy and pardon heal all wounds — even those of a nation.
Raymond Arroyo’s new book is “The Magnificent Mischief of Tad Lincoln”(Zonderkids/ Harper Collins).