WASHINGTON — Thanksgiving is next week and the plat principal on most tables will be the turkey. A native North American bird, the turkey has been the star of Thanksgiving feasts since the mid-19th century. A somewhat quirky and recent Thanksgiving tradition is the Presidential Turkey Pardon. In this annual tradition the president spares two birds from becoming a part of the Thanksgiving meal by bestowing on them an official presidential pardon.
The origins of this tradition are often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, which is partially true. Thanksgiving celebrations became a national observance in 1863 when the Lincoln administration issued a presidential proclamation setting the last Thursday in November as a day to give thanks.
The Thanksgiving turkey connection to Lincoln comes via his youngest son, Tad. Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was a rambunctious and spirited boy who was concurrently a source of levity and a headache within the Lincoln White House. Tad was known for his antics and his love of animals. A famous example of this combination involved Tad hitching two pet goats, named Nannie and Nanko, to a chair and having them pull him through a crowded White House reception.
In late 1863 a live turkey was sent to the White House to be raised for the Lincolns’ Christmas dinner (not Thanksgiving). Soon after the bird’s arrival Tad quickly befriended the animal, named him Jack, and taught the bird to follow him around the White House grounds. When the time came for the bird to become the main course Tad protested pleading with his father to spare him. President Lincoln, who could be rather soft when it came to his children, relented allowing the bird to live. Jack remained at the White House for at least another year.
The gifting of turkeys during the holiday season became a regular occurrence at the White House in subsequent years. A Rhode Island poultry producer name Harold Vose started sending a turkey to the White House annually in 1873. Vose contributed a bird every year until his death in 1913. The yearly offering gained Vose’s farm some publicity and became an established and expected tradition at the White House in those years. During the 1920s presidents continued to receive turkeys during the holidays from wide array of well-meaning citizens and organizations from across the country. The gifts were so numerous that Calvin Coolidge tried to discourage the practice when he took office in 1923 by buying a local turkey for Thanksgiving. President Coolidge eventually came to appreciate the gestures and received the gifts of fowl in the remaining years of his term.
The beginning of the turkey pardon is sometimes wrongly attributed to President Harry Truman. In 1947 President Truman received a turkey from the Poultry & Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation. This began the practice of a presidential photo op with the donated bird, but Truman did not “pardon” the turkey.
Poultry was a hot topic in 1947 due to voluntary rationing and food conservation efforts that Truman attempted to implement that autumn. Food scarcity was a looming problem in Western European countries which were still recovering from World War II. To help provide and redistribute more food to allies in Europe, Truman formed a task force called the Citizens Food Committee to help Americans conserve more and consume less food. The committee encouraged Americans to participate in rationing measures like Meatless Tuesdays and Poultryless & Eggless Thursdays.
Despite encouragements these restrictions were not well received by food businesses and everyday citizens alike. This was compounded by the fact that in addition to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day fell on Thursdays that year. Upset poultry growers sent crates of chickens for the president in protest addressing them as “Hens for Harry.” Though President Truman remained faithful to the objectives of the Citizens Food Committee, the task force and its goals were abandoned by the end of 1947 due to a lack of participation.
The National Turkey Federation continued to present a bird to the president around Thanksgiving after 1947 and continues to do so today. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both mentioned enjoying the birds for holiday meals, so the pardon was not instituted then. President John F. Kennedy started the tradition of letting the donated turkey go free though. In 1963 President Kennedy was gifted a 55-pound turkey and despite it wearing a sign that said, “Good Eating, Mr. President!” Kennedy decided to spare him saying, “Let’s keep him going.” The presentation occurred on November 19, 1963 and it would sadly be one of President Kennedy’s last acts as president as he was assassinated three days later in Dallas.
The next string of presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, were all photographed in turkey ceremonies. In the 1970s two First Ladies helped start the practice of sending the turkeys to live on farms after the ceremony. In 1973 Patricia Nixon accepted the bird on her husband’s behalf and had it sent to live at the National Park Service’s Oxon Hill Farm in Maryland afterward. Similarly, in 1978 Rosalynn Carter represented the president and had the turkey live the rest of its days in a zoo at the Evans Farm Inn. The practice was standard by Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word “pardon” when talking about the offered turkey. However, he used it in a joking manner. In 1987 President Reagan and members of his administration were under scrutiny due to the Iran-Contra Scandal. During the ceremony a reporter called out asking whether Reagan planned to pardon any of his aides of wrongdoing. In response Reagan jokingly pointed to the turkey and said, “I’ll pardon him.”
It was not until George H. W. Bush’s presidency that the pardoning of a turkey became a formal and official presidential event. During his first turkey presentation ceremony as president in 1989 President Bush said of that year’s bird, “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.”
The turkey pardoning ceremony has been an annual event ever since and has become a well-known, light-hearted duty that the president performs in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Two turkeys are chosen for the ceremony in case one is sick or cannot otherwise participate. Through the years the turkeys have been given corny or patriotic sounding names such as Stars and Stripes in 2003, Biscuits and Gravy in 2004, and Chocolate and Chip in 2022 to name a few. The birds also receive a Five-Star treatment during their trip to Washington, D.C. Since 2013, the traveling turkeys get to spend the night prior to the ceremony in the upscale Willard InterContinental Hotel, nicknamed “The Residence of Presidents.”
This year, President Biden will pardon two fortuitous, feathered friends that will come from a Jennie-O farm in Willmar, Minnesota.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.