The Lincoln Turkey Pardon–a 2011 reprint, updated!

November 26 marks another year in which a turkey receives a Presidential pardon, this time from President Obama. The 2014 turkeys (there are always two nowadays–one is an alternate in case something happens to the first) are from Ohio, and will live to gobble another day at the nationally recognized livestock facility at the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, home of George Washington.

For those out there who abhor farbism in any manner, the turkeys will NOT be seen by the public, as they are not appropriate for the historical setting of Mount Vernon itself. Only back-bred wild turkeys need apply for that particular job.

Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a holiday turkey to the President. The fate of these birds has been varied: Obama, Clinton and both Presidents Bush granted pardons; Reagan, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Johnson chose to serve them with cranberry sauce and dressing. I am not sure about Carter.

President Truman was the first President to receive a turkey, and he is often credited with the first pardon. The gobbler was presented for Christmas, not Thanksgiving and, unfortunately, there is no documentation of any kind to indicate the fate of the fowl. President Kennedy didn’t exactly pardon his turkey–but he gave in to family pressure and did not eat him.

What to think? Where could this American tradition have started? Ah, yes!! The American Civil War!! It just had to be.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, lobbied Congress for many years to create a specific day upon which to celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday, but it was not until Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863 that it finally happened. So, that was the first year that the holiday of Thanksgiving was officially celebrated in the White House.

A young turkey was delivered to Pennsylvania Avenue in the summer of 1863, and true to form, it became a pet of ten-year old Tad Lincoln, the President’s youngest son. The turkey, named Jack, became so tame that he followed Tad everywhere, much to the distress of the White House Staff. Union soldiers often had to cautiously get past Tad’s turkey just to approach the steps of the White House.

Tad had often witnessed his father granting pardons to soldiers, especially those whose wives and parents came personally to plead for mercy on their behalf, so when he found out that poor Jack was to be the main course the next day, he knew just what to do, and who to ask.

Tad Lincoln

Hysterically, Tad either a) burst into a Cabinet meeting or b) pushed past John Hay and George Nicolay to get to his father. Lincoln was working at the time, and looked sternly at his youngest, who had so rudely interrupted.

Tears streaming down his face, poor Tad stuttered out the sad story to his Dad, pulling on Lincoln’s coat sleeve and pleading for some sort of intervention from his father concerning the eventual fate of the fowl. The little boy made his case most skillfully. He compared Jack to the soldiers who were pardoned every day in that very same office, and surely the turkey had not offended nearly as much as a soldier accused of desertion!

Lincoln, a notorious pushover for all children, but especially his own, was recorded as hugging his small son tightly, then reaching across the big oak desk for a blank card. Upon it he wrote: “By order of the President of the United States, Jack the turkey is to be spared from execution.”

The next day Thanksgiving dinner was served in the White House. The main course featured both a ham and a roasted chicken.

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The text of Abraham 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 unequaled 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 defense, 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 battlefield; 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 Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward, Secretary of State

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Readers–I do not care if your stuffing has oysters or cornbread, I simply wish a Happy Thanksgiving to All.
Recommended Reading:
Thanksgiving In the White House, by Gary Hines (Holt & Co. New York)–a children’s book.

Tad Lincoln’s Father, by Julia Taft Bayne (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London).

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