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?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.