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Every year, two turkeys are brought into the White House to seek pardon from the president, so they can be spared their tanned faces at the executive table. What is little known is that this national tradition was founded by the youngest member of the Lincoln family and helps uncover the origins of Thanksgiving as a federal holiday.
While researching a new picture book, “Tad Lincoln’s Great Pranks,” he discovered that Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie had a fever and died in the White House. Even as the Civil War dragged on, the entire family was overwhelmed with grief. To cope with their shared grief and navigate this nation’s darkest days, Abraham Lincoln and his youngest son, Tad, became inseparable. White House staff described 10-year-old Tad as a “fierce man” who regularly played pranks on his father and ran around the East Room with a goat tied to a dining room chair during parties, but the president He took great delight in Tad’s pranks and pranks.
Tad accompanied his father to major speeches and military reviews, and in the evenings he would lie beside the president’s desk as Lincoln listened to his requests for pardons, sometimes late into the night. Lincoln’s personal loss made him sympathetic to those who visited the White House. He asks for pardon for his son who has renounced the war, and begs for the return of confiscated property. Lincoln’s cabinet did not like the president hearing these personal pardon requests – the president granted 82% of the cases he heard. Tad Lincoln absorbed his lessons as he lay next to his desk and watched his father offer mercy and forgiveness to those suffering in a brutal war.
How Abraham Lincoln was saved by his son Tad and gave us a memorable ‘holiday tradition’
1863 was a momentous year for the Lincoln family. That was the year the president signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people. The year he gave the Gettysburg Address. That year, he granted a complete amnesty to the South, allowing them to return their property if they rejoined the Union. This was also the year that the all-important Christmas turkey arrived at the White House.
Tad, still grieving his brother’s death, befriends the bird and names it Jack. He taught the turkey tricks and walked it around the White House grounds on a leash. Tad now has someone to play with again. And just before the holidays, the White House chef took Jack into the kitchen to prepare the Christmas feast. Upset, Tad scoops up the turkey and he runs upstairs and breaks into Lincoln’s Cabinet room.
“That executioner in the kitchen is trying to kill Jack! That’s terrible. I can’t forgive him,” Tad yelled. The president explained that the turkey was sent to be eaten. “He’s a good turkey,” Tad protested. “I can’t let him die, Poe.”
Moved by Tad’s plea, Lincoln took up the pen and granted Jack the Turkey a full reprieve, enacting the first White House Turkey Pardon. The same mercy and forgiveness that drove Lincoln to pardon Tad also inspired his efforts to unite the country.
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That same year, Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving on the national calendar. Previously, 21 of 29 states celebrated the holiday, but there was no agreed-upon date. Lincoln revised that and declared Thanksgiving to be “the last Thursday in November.” But he did more than that. He recast the day as a call for national unity premised on forgiveness. Lincoln wrote:
“The Most High God, though he dealt with us with wrath for our sins, remembered mercy.” He then called on all nations to “humble repentance for our perversity and disobedience.” …and we fervently implore the intervention of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as possible in accordance with God’s purpose and enjoy it to the fullest.” Peace, harmony, tranquility and union. ”
Oddly enough, the tradition of presidential turkey pardons began with President Lincoln, but it would take 100 years for another president to continue. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was presented with a turkey topped with a sign that read, “Mr. President, I’m eating well!” Kennedy took pity on the bird. “Let’s keep him going. This is his Thanksgiving present,” Kennedy said.
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However, it wasn’t until 1987 that the word “amnesty” officially entered modern usage in connection with turkeys. When President Ronald Reagan received his annual holiday turkey at the White House, he was asked by a reporter whether he intended to pardon any aides involved in the incident. Iran-Contra incident. President Reagan pointed to the 55-pound bird and joked, “I’ll forgive you.” Every president since Reagan has formally pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey. Tad Lincoln’s legacy continues.
So this year, when you look at the Thanksgiving turkey or watch the White House pardon ceremony, you think about Tad Lincoln and his father, who believed that mercy and pardon can heal all wounds, even the nation’s. Please remember.
Raymond Arroyo’s new book is Tad Lincoln’s Great Pranks (Sonder Kids/HarperCollins).
For more information on Raymond Arroyo, click here