The presidential turkey pardon is as much a part of Thanksgiving as cranberry sauce and Black Friday. But the pardoning ceremony took its place at the table more recently than you might think.
Here are presidential firsts and milestones in the history of turkey pardons:
1863. Abraham Lincoln likely is the first president to pardon a turkey. It wasn’t a Thanksgiving turkey, however. It was a Christmas turkey, and Lincoln was responding to a plea from his 10-year-old son.
The story of the Lincoln turkey pardon, which took place in December 1863, seems to have been first told by a journalist shortly after the president’s assassination on April 14, 1865.
Noah Brooks (1830-1903), a Washington correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union in California from 1862 to 1865, wrote a dispatch on May 17, 1865, reporting the Lincoln family’s plans to leave for Illinois the following week. He noted that Lincoln had two surviving sons, Robert and Thomas, nicknamed Tad.
“The President was passionately attached to his boys,” Brooks wrote, “and seldom went anywhere without Tad, of whom he told me an amusing anecdote on the last election day [Nov. 8, 1864]. About a year before, a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but Tad interceded in behalf of its life, and carried the case up to the Executive Chamber, securing a stay of proceedings until his father could be heard from. The argument was that the turkey had as good a right to live as any body else, and his plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”
Brooks’ story was published in the Daily Union on June 14, 1865.
1873: A holiday turkey is given to the president for the first time. Horace Vose (1840-1913), a Rhode Island turkey raiser, sent a turkey to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, starting a tradition he continued with nine other presidents on Thanksgiving and Christmas until President Woodrow Wilson received the last one for Thanksgiving 1913. Vose died that December.
The White House Historical Association says the “Poultry King” slaughtered and dressed each turkey before shipping it to the White House in a box addressed to the president—a method that pretty much ruled out a pardon. Over time, other turkey raisers saw the publicity benefits of landing a bird on the first family’s table and started shipping their own gobblers to the White House.
1946: The holiday presentation involves a live turkey and a White House ceremony. On Dec. 16, 1946, two trade groups, the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation, along with other industry representatives, presented President Harry S. Truman with two live Christmas turkeys: a 42-pound tom turkey from Texas and a 20-pound turkey hen from Minnesota.
The first live-turkey handoff to a U.S. president wasn’t a particularly smooth transaction. At one point, things went horribly wrong and Truman had to take executive action. The Associated Press reported: “President Truman’s farm training came in handy today when he brought an escape-minded 42-pound turkey under control.” As the top was being lifted from the turkey’s crate, the big tom “leaped upward and tried to escape,” the AP noted, adding, “The President, after something of a struggle, pushed it back into its prison.”
The National Turkey Federation says it has been involved in every annual turkey presentation since the Truman administration. (The Poultry and Egg National Board became the American Egg Board in 1973.)
1949: The turkey presentation is tied to Thanksgiving for the first time.In 1947, the holiday turkey presentation was again a Christmas event, held on Dec. 15. The next year the ceremony took place on Dec. 13. But in 1949, the turkey tradition switched holidays. Truman got his live turkey on Nov. 16.
There is a widespread story that Truman’s turkey ceremonies, in particular the one on Dec. 15, 1947, included a pardon for the event’s centerpiece—a perception so pervasive that the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum felt it had to address the matter on its website.
The Web entry states: “The Truman Library has received many requests over the years for information confirming the story that President Truman ‘pardoned’ a Thanksgiving turkey in 1947, thus initiating a Presidential tradition that continues to this day. 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.”
1963. A president saves a turkey’s life, but does not grant him a pardon. When the National Turkey Federation and the poultry board presented John F. Kennedy with a 55-pound tom turkey on Nov. 19, 1963, the president grinned as he “looked down at the frightened, panting bird,” AP reported, and said, “We’ll just let this one grow.” Kennedy added, “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.”
Some have interpreted that as a pardon. Even a caption on an official White House photo of the event states that “President Kennedy pardoned the turkey.” But the president himself did not actually use those words, according to press accounts. Kennedy asked that the turkey be sent back to the California farm that raised him.
In succeeding years, sometime during the Nixon administration, presidents began to routinely send their turkeys to various farms after the ceremony was over and the photographs had been taken, according to a 2011 White House history of the pardons.
1987. A president uses the word “pardon” with a turkey for the first time. During the turkey presentation to Ronald Reagan on Nov. 23, 1987, a White House staffer told the press that the turkey, Charlie, was going to a pet farm.
Then ABC News chief White House correspondent Sam Donaldson drastically changed the subject and asked Reagan if he was going to pardon two administration officials, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North and Vice Adm. John Poindexter, who were in hot water for their role in the Iran-Contra Affair.
Reagan told Donaldson that the pardon question was something “no one can answer at this point, and I’m not going to try.” Donaldson shot back: “You can. Isn’t it up to you?”
Reagan: “No. No, I can’t.”
Donaldson: “What has to happen, Mr. President?”
Reagan: “If they’d given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him.” That brought laughter from the audience.
1989. The first official turkey pardon is issued. On Nov. 17, 1989, George H.W. Bush, in remarks made when signing his first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation as president, spoke about Pilgrims who were united by a love of liberty and exhibited a yearning for freedom that inspires others around the world. And then he immediately switched to this:
“That brings me to another traditional moment involving our special guest over here today—the guy in the cage there, who seems understandably nervous. It is my great privilege to receive the traditional Thanksgiving turkey. Millie [the family dog] has been put upstairs, looking wistfully out of the window, I'm sure. 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.”
From that day on, every president, every Thanksgiving, has issued a formal turkey pardon.
- Brown University: Understanding the Iran-Contra Affairs.
- George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Remarks on Signing the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Nov. 17, 1989
- Idaho State Journal, Turkey Owes Life to JFK, Nov. 20, 1963, Page 5 (see text at bottom of Web page).
- Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, edited by Michael Burlingame (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
- National Turkey Federation, Turkey History & Trivia.
- Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Informal Exchange With Reporters, Nov. 23, 1987.
- Spokane (Wash.) Daily Chronicle, Truman Conquers 42-Pound Turkey, Dec. 16, 1946.
- Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, The President’s Day, Monday, Dec. 16, 1946.
- Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, The President’s Day, Monday, Dec. 15, 1947.
- Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, The President’s Day, Monday, Dec. 13, 1948.
- Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, The President’s Day, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1949.
- Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Did Truman pardon a Turkey?
- The White House blog, The Definitive History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon, Nov. 23, 2011.
- The White House Historical Association, Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey.
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