A Brief History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon

President Barack Obama became only the fourth president today to engage in the tradition of the presidential turkey pardon. The pardoning of the turkey given to the President of the United States of America is a fairly modern tradition. 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.

Here is the video of Obama pardoning the turkey:

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.

When amateurs or Alaska governors try to pardon a turkey, things don’t go so well:

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 20 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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