The history of pardoning turkeys began with Tad Lincoln
The presidential pardoning of a turkey is a Thanksgiving tradition that many believe dates back to 1947. That's when President Harry Truman was presented with a holiday bird by the National Turkey Federation. But there's no evidence that Truman did anything different from his successor, President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, with his family, consumed all eight birds the NTF presented them.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first president to see the word "pardon" used with reference to a Thanksgiving turkey. 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. Just days before that year's Thanksgiving, he was assassinated in Dallas.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word "pardon" in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey. This happened in 1987, 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 destined for a petting farm, "I would have pardoned him."
In fact, it was President George H.W. Bush who began the tradition, 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 presented with a Christmas turkey destined for the dinner table. But his young, precocious son Tad intervened.
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 youngest of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. He was born after Edward "Eddie" Lincoln died in the winter of 1850 at the age of 11. He most likely died of tuberculosis. Both Tad and his brother William "Willie" Lincoln were believed to have contracted typhoid fever in Washington. While Tad recovered, Willie succumbed in February of 1862. He was 11.
With the eldest Lincoln son, Robert, away at Harvard College, young Tad became the only child living at in the White House. By all accounts, the boy was indomitable and charismatic. He was full of life at a time when his family, and the nation, were experiencing tremendous grief. Born with a cleft palate that gave him a lisp and dental impairments that made it almost impossible for him to eat solid food, Tad was easily distracted, full of energy and highly emotional. Unlike his father and brother, he was none too focused on academics.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1863, after Abraham Lincoln's presidential proclamation, which set the date as the last Thursday in November. Because of the Civil War, however, the Confederate States of America refused to recognize Lincoln's authority. Thanksgiving wouldn't be celebrated nationally until years after the war.
It was, however, in late 1863, when the Lincolns received a live turkey for the family to feast on at Christmas. Tad, ever fond of animals, quickly adopted the bird as a pet. He named him Jack and taught him to follow behind as he hiked around the White House grounds. On Christmas Eve, Lincoln told his son that the pet would no longer be a pet. "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." The boy argued that the bird had every right to live, and as always, the president gave in to his son, writing a reprieve for the turkey on a card and handing it to Tad.
The boy kept Jack for another year, and 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."