The history of pardoning turkeys began with Tad Lincoln
The pardoning of a turkey is a Thanksgiving tradition. It is done by the president. Many think it dates back to 1947. That's when President Harry Truman was given a holiday bird. It was given to him by the National Turkey Federation. But there's no proof that Truman did anything different from the president that came after him. That president was Dwight Eisenhower. He and his family ate all eight birds the NTF gave them.
President John F. Kennedy became the first president to see the word "pardon" used with reference to a Thanksgiving turkey. This was in 1963. But he did not officially spare a bird in a pre-Thanksgiving ceremony in the Rose Garden. Kennedy simply announced that he would not eat the bird. Newspapers reported that the president had "pardoned" the gobbler. It had been given to him by the California Turkey Advisory Board.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word "pardon" in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey. This happened in 1987. It was in response to media queries about whether he might pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North or any of the other figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan joked that if that year's turkey had not already been bound for a petting farm, "I would have pardoned him."
It was President George H.W. Bush who began the tradition. This was in 1989. "Not this guy," Bush said when a holiday turkey was presented. "He's been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here."
Bush pardoned a turkey in each remaining year of his presidency. So has every president since. However, the earliest known sparing of a holiday bird can be traced to 1863. That's when Abraham Lincoln was given a Christmas turkey. It was bound for the dinner table. But his young son Tad stepped in.
Thomas "Tad" Lincoln was just 8 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., to live at the White House. His father was sworn into office in March 1861. Tad was the youngest of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. He was born after Edward "Eddie" Lincoln died in the winter of 1850. He was just 11 years old. He most likely died of tuberculosis. Both Tad and his brother William "Willie" Lincoln were believed to have contracted typhoid fever in Washington. Tad recovered. But Willie died in February of 1862. He was 11.
The eldest Lincoln son was Robert. He was away at Harvard College. Young Tad became the only child living at in the White House. By all accounts, the boy was unstoppable. He was charming. He was full of life. This was at a time when his family was going through terrible grief. Tad was born with a cleft palate. It gave him a lisp. It gave him dental impairments. They made it very hard for him to eat solid food. Tad was easily distracted. He was full of energy. He was highly emotional. He was not too focused on school. This was unlike his father and brother.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1863. This was after Abraham Lincoln's presidential proclamation. It set the date as the last Thursday in November. The Confederate States of America refused to recognize Lincoln's authority. This was due to the Civil War. Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated nationally until years after the war.
In late 1863 the Lincolns got a live turkey. It was for the family to feast on at Christmas. Tad was ever fond of animals. He quickly adopted the bird as a pet. He named him Jack. He taught him to follow behind as he hiked around the White House grounds. Lincoln told his son that the pet would no longer be a pet. This was on Christmas Eve.
"Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten for this very Christmas," he told Tad. Tad answered, "I can't help it. He's a good turkey. And I don't want him killed." The boy argued that the bird had every right to live. The president gave in to his son. He wrote a pardon for the turkey on a card. He handed it to Tad.
The boy kept Jack for another year. On election day in 1864, Abraham Lincoln spotted the bird among soldiers. They were lining up to vote. Lincoln playfully asked his son if the turkey would be voting too. Tad answered, "Oh, no. He isn't of age yet."