You Can Thank Abe Lincoln's 11-Year-Old Son For The Presidential Turkey Pardon

Tad LincolnWikimedia CommonsTad Lincoln, wearing a military uniform in the 1860s.

President Obama will continue
the odd and heartwarming traditionof pardoning a turkey before Thanksgiving this week — a tradition the White House says may go back 150 years.

The White House’s definitive history of the presidential turkey pardon says Abe Lincoln’s son, Tad, may have started the tradition of sparing a bird every year.

In 1863, then-11-year-old Tad begged his father to pardon the turkey that the Lincolns planned to eat on Christmas. The story goes that young Tad said the turkey had every right to live, according to the White House.

Smithsonian Magazine has more details on young Tad’s quest to save the family turkey. After the Lincolns got their live Christmas Turkey, Tad adopted it as his pet and named it Jack. The boy — the youngest of four who freely roamed the executive mansion — taught the bird to follow him around the White House grounds.

The story goes that Lincoln initially insisted that the turkey be eaten, according to the Smithsonian. From the magazine:

“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.”

Lincoln eventually relented, letting his energetic and emotional young son have his way.

It would be more than 100 years before a president would actually use the word “pardon” in connection with a turkey. Ronald Reagan made a reference to turkey-pardoning as a joke when he was asked whether he planned to pardon anybody involved with the Iran-Contra scandal, according to the Smithsonian.

If the spared turkey weren’t already on its way to a petting farm, Reagan said, “I would have pardoned him.”

President George H.W. Bush was the first president to pardon a turkey in earnest, according to the White House. From the White House history:

President George H.W. Bush was the first to actually offer a turkey pardon. On November 14, 1989, he announced that year’s bird had “been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” He sent the turkey on his way to the perhaps unfortunately named Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Virginia, and with that, a tradition was born.

Obama will continue the tradition on Wednesday when the National Turkey Federation presents him with a live turkey. This will be a rare event for Obama, who is notoriously stingy about issuing pardons.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Tad Lincoln was 8 years old when he asked for the turkey to be pardoned. The error has been corrected.

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