The History of the Presidential Pardon for a Thanksgiving Turkey

ImageThe pardoning of the turkey given to the President of the United States of America is a fairly modern tradition. In fact, it isn’t even 20 years old yet. Contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t Harry Truman or Abe Lincoln who pardoned the first turkey. It was George H.W. Bush in 1989.

The most popular misconception is that President Harry Truman started the tradition in 1947. However, according to the Truman Museum and Presidential Library, “The Library’s staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency. Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table. In any event, the Library has been unable to determine when the tradition of pardoning the turkey actually began.”

Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has been presenting the president with a live turkey and two dressed ones to mark the traditional start of the holiday season. With the exception of President Kennedy in 1961, most of these birds, until 1989, were eaten. Ronald Reagan was the first to joke about a presidential pardon for the bird, but it was his successor that began the tradition. President George H.W. Bush said in 1989, “This fine tom turkey has been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”

The Lincoln story is a bit of interesting folklore. The story goes that President Lincoln’s son Tad became attached to a Christmas turkey in 1863. Instead of eating the turkey, it was kept as a pet, which Tad named Jack. There is no evidence to confirm the truth of this story, and even if it is true, Lincoln didn’t pardon the turkey, he decided to let his son keep it. However, like many of the stories about Lincoln it may be true, or it might not. It is another story about the humanity of one of our mythic presidents.

After the turkey has been pardoned, it gets a trip to Disneyland where it gets to be an honorary grand marshal in Disneyland’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In the past the pardoned turkeys had been sent to a petting zoo in Virginia, but all of the pardoned turkeys are allowed to retire live out their lives without becoming someone’s dinner on Thanksgiving Day. I thought that this tradition when back longer than 19 years. At any rate, it is fun, and certainly the least controversial pardon that a president will grant during their term

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4 Replies to “The History of the Presidential Pardon for a Thanksgiving Turkey”

  1. President-elect Obama has already decided to cancel the fireworks show during his inaugeration as a way to trim down the budget for the event. I hope that as President, Obama will continue to lead the country by eliminating wasteful spending of tax money and ending silly traditions. We as a nation do not need a clown as President who waste taxpayer money on turkey pardons and Easter egg hunts on the front lawn of the White House. As a parent, Obama can show his human side by alowing us a glimps of his family and it’s traditions but we need to end the pomp of the White House as it struggles to immitate the grandour of a monarchy. Let the government stick to governing and allow families to cellebrate family traditions but lets not mix the two. Cut wastefull spending and carve the damn turkey already.

  2. Mitch you are just being ridiculous, it doesn’t cost the tax payers anything for the president to pardon a turkey. It doses however bring joy to millions of people who enjoy seeing a life (even if it is a turkey’s) being spared instead of more killing. So I think your comment is quite prudish. You need to worry more about the pardoning of illegal aliens than the life of a turkey.

  3. another person wants to take us back into the 12th-century. Stop being silly, no one is stopping the families from celebrating Thanksgiving. But unless you just got here, you might notice that Thanksgiving is a national holiday. One that the country celebrates and the president’s Thanksgiving at the White House is representative of this country’s Thanksgiving day.

    At least Pres. Obama did not deliver a plastic turkey to the troops as another president was known to do

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