Pardoning the turkey

I’m glad to see President Obama using the annual ritual of “pardoning” a turkey to tease the Republicans about “amnesty.” And I’m fully in sympathy with his daughters in their disdain for what has become more more bit of meaningless nonsense, performed only because it can’t be omitted.

But, like Etruscan liturgies that kept being performed long after even the priests had forgotten what they meant (Etruscan having become a thoroughly dead language) the Turkey Pardon once had a meaning. Unlike those liturgies, we even know what the meaning was.

Abraham Lincoln granted the original pardon in 1864; apparently his son Tad had developed a fondness for the bird being raised for the White House Thanksgiving table, and asked his father to let the creature live. Lincoln complied, starting what has become a tradition.

But letting a turkey live doesn’t require a “Presidential pardon.” What was Lincoln up to?

As Commander-in-Chief in wartime, he presided over a system of military discipline that included the death penalty not only for murder, but for desertion and falling asleep on watch. He insisted on personally reviewing every file, and avoided execution whenever he could: “I am trying to evade the butchering business lately.”

Lincoln’s semi-comic “mercy” toward the turkey – after all, it seems unlikely that the White House table went turkey-less that year – reflected his perfectly serious mercy toward human beings. President Obama, who presides over a Federal prison system now holding more than 200,000 people, has – like most of his recent predecessors – been more than a little stingy in his use of the power of clemency. Now that we’ve observed the Thanksgiving ritual, how about a good old-fashioned mass pardon for Christmas?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

3 thoughts on “Pardoning the turkey”

  1. Aeschylus' incomparable Oresteia trilogy opens with the sentry on the walls of Agamemnon's fortress-palace at Mycenae fighting off sleep: punishable by death then as in the American Civil War. For millennia, sentries had neither coffee nor benzedrine to help. In time of war, execution is still the maximum penalty in the US Army for falling asleep on sentry duty (UCMJ, Article 113).

  2. Agreed. I think he should pardon Snowden though I very much doubt it will happen. I hope I don't end up on a list somewhere for saying so. I haven't followed it all very closely, but iirc, he only gave the stuff to reputable news organizations to sort through, instead of a data dump. That means something. They can maybe put him in Camp Fed a couple years if necessary, but it's too much to never be able to come home. Or he could pick up trash. Or teach computer science. Lots of facesaving ways out of it.

    In fact, I think that guy that tried to break in the White House did us all a big favor too. It was a needed wake-up call. We should hire people to try to break in every so often. Maybe they could wear special shirts or something so they don't get shot. We all get sleepy sometimes.

  3. The “tradition” of pardoning a Thanksgiving (or other) turkey is only fancifully traced to Lincoln. In reality, it apparently goes all the way back to George Herbert Walker Bush. Snopes, usually reliable, gives the history here: Thanksgiving pardon

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