The Encyclopedia Smithsonian says that the first Thanksgiving service known to be held by Europeans in North America occurred on May 27, 1578 in Newfoundland, although earlier Church-type services were probably held by Spaniards in La Florida. In 1941, the US Senate amended H.J. Res. 41, making the Fourth Thursday in November a national legal holiday for Thanksgiving.
The annual Presidential Thanksgiving pardon of a turkey is a relatively new tradition that began in 1989 when George H.W. Bush granted the first official pardon. This year, President Obama will pardon one of two turkeys, either Cobbler or Gobbler, to become the 24th turkey to receive the honor of the presidential pardon. Rumors of turkey pardons stretch back to President Abraham Lincoln who spared a turkey meant for Christmas dinner when his son Tad argued the turkey had as much a right to live as anyone. President John F. Kennedy spared a turkey not as an official pardon on November 19, 1963, shortly before his assassination, saying “Let’s just keep him.” In 1987, President Ronald Reagan deflected questions about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-contra case by joking about pardoning the turkey that was already heading to a petting zoo.
The Brooklyn Law School Library collection includes a 75 page pamphlet The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, The Death of Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo. In it, the author sees the annual presidential reprieve as more than a lark but as “a symbolic pardoning act which, through public performance, establishes and manifests the sovereign’s position at the helm of the state by highlighting . . . his power to control matters of life and death.” These rituals raise troubling thoughts on the exercise of US sovereignty, from Teddy Roosevelt’s big-stick era to the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo.