Saved from Fowl Play: a Brief History of Turkey Pardoning

November 20, 2023

As Thanksgiving approaches, a peculiar and heartwarming tradition takes center stage in the United States: the presidential turkey pardoning. This annual event has become a symbol of both lighthearted holiday festivities and a welcome break from the usual partisan tomfoolery that comes out of government. But how did this tradition come about? In this blog post, we’ll explore the fascinating history of presidential turkey pardoning and its evolution over the years.

The origins of presidential turkey pardoning are murky at best, but we do have some ideas about how it started. President Lincoln is typically credited with the first turkey “pardoning” in 1863, at the urging of his ten-year-old son Tad (Smithsonian). According to President Clinton in his 1997 pardoning ceremony, Tad had grown so attached to the bird that he had named him Jack and Lincoln was forced to concede full run of the White House to him. This was also the same year Lincoln proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day, to be specifically celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday of November, and although it wasn’t technically made a federal holiday until President Grant signed it into law in 1871 (Statutes at Large 1871) it has been celebrated every year since. Ironically, Lincoln’s first “pardoned” turkey, however, was never destined for thanksgiving but for Christmas dinner that year and the “pardoning” was likely not done in November.

Turkeys started regularly being presented to the President by Horace Vose, a Rhode Island turkey farmer, starting with President Grant in 1873 and continuing until Horace’s death. The last of Horace’s turkeys was presented to President Wilson in 1913 (NYP). Although, rumor has its Horace’s turkeys were already dressed, meaning ready to eat, by the time they were presented to the president therefore none of Horace’s turkeys were pardoned or even pardonable. In 1914, the opportunity to give a turkey to the president was extended to everyone. This set off a frenzy of rotating farmers lobbying annually to supply the holiday bird likely resulting from Horace’s presidential turkeys generating such good publicity for his farm over the years (NPR). In this period, however, the presentation of the turkey to the president was not the ceremony or media spectacle we know today, mostly likely it was a small exchange between the farmer and White House staff (WHHA).

Many turkeys were given to presidents during this period with the president likely receiving several in a given season from supporters, lobbyists, and well-meaning farmers. The first live turkeys to be presented to the President since Lincoln were sent by the town of Cuero, Texas via train car to Wilson and Harding during their terms, although both presidents elected to slaughter and eat them rather than extending clemency (WHHA). This practice continued until the Official National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation was started by the Poultry and Egg National Board in 1947 and President Harry Turman was presented the first Turkey under during this new ceremony with guests and the media invited to watch. Despite the newly legitimated ceremony there is no record of President Truman pardoning any of the birds presented to him (NARA). Likely they probably ended up on the dinner table!

Records at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library confirm that Ike had no qualms with turkey and ate the presented bird for thanksgiving every year through both terms (WP).  It wasn’t until President Kennedy had a spontaneous change of heart during the ceremony in 1963 that the first turkey since Lincoln was spared—just three days before this assassination. But although articles in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times referred to it as a “pardon” Kennedy did use the word himself, instead stating “We’ll just let this one grow” (NBC).

While beginning the modern acquittal tradition Kennedy did not cement it as his successor Johnson picked up where Eisenhower and Truman left off—gobbling up their guest! In the latter half of the Nixon presidency administration policy began to shift and in 1973 when first lady Thelma “Pat” Nixon accepted a bird on the president’s behalf during the ceremony she sent it to live at Oxon Hill Children’s Farm. However, this was an exception not the rule and the next turkey wouldn’t receive a stay of execution until 1978 when another First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, sent their bird to live in a mini zoo (WHHA).

President Reagan was the first president to solidify the practice of dependably sending turkeys presented to him to live out the rest of their days on a farm and no presidential turkey since then has ended up on a dinner plate. However, that’s not the end of the story! Reagan didn’t technically use the word ‘pardon’ to refer to the turkey ceremony until 1987, when he was attempting to deflect an actual question regarding whether he would pardon senior administration officials who were convicted of illegally selling arms to Iran (NPR).

The convention of formally “pardoning” the turkey began in 1989 with George H. W. Bush. In the shadow of animal rights activists picketing nearby he proclaimed “Our special guest seems understandably nervous, but let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy…he’s granted a Presidential pardon as of right now… and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.” (NARA)

Since then the tradition has carried on uninterrupted, and the process has gone largely unexamined by legal and constitutional scholars. This is probably for the best because as it turns out the president’s turkey pardons may not actually be legally enforceable, at least according to some here at the law school. However, there is no need to worry, most presidentially pardon turkeys go on to enjoy relatively high-profile lives—for a turkey that is—and enjoy tenure at locations with world class turkey accommodation. In recent years alumni of the ceremony have gone on to grand marshals Disney’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, live on the historic grounds of Mount Vernon, or been gifted to universities.  Last year’s 2022 recipients of the pardon are now housed at a facility operated by North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences where “they live under the expert care of university poultry specialists and students” (CBS).