Presidential Pardon Of Turkey – The Tradition Explained

Every year the President pardons two turkeys, allowing them to live their lives free from the fear of being someone’s Thanksgiving dinner. But when did this turkey pardon tradition begin?

Clemency is an act of mercy or leniency. The President of the United States possesses this clemency power, given to him or her by the Constitution. The pardon may come in the form of a full pardon, a commutation of a sentence, or a remission of a fine. Individuals who seek a pardon fill out forms and documentation and receive a full and extensive review of their crime, level of wrongdoing, and attendant circumstances.

The Thanksgiving Presidential Pardon: Origins and Early Years

However, there are some individuals who do not have to go through this arduous process. Two lucky turkeys every Thanksgiving are given a pardon by the President. Instead of ending up in the middle of the family’s Thanksgiving table, the turkeys are allowed to live their lives out on a farm or animal sanctuary.

Turkey Pardon

There is no indication what the President is actually pardoning the turkeys for, as none of the turkeys have been convicted of any crimes or misdemeanors. Other than being a tasty main dish for the holiday season, the turkeys have committed no crimes. However, this tradition has now become solidified as a great PR opportunity for each president. One reporter has suggested that the presidential turkey pardon reflects the long traditions of forgiveness in world religions, especially during the holiday season.

The origins of the turkey pardon are murky. Historians concluded that one of the first turkeys that become unofficially “pardoned” was during President Abraham Lincoln’s tenure.  An 1865 dispatch by a White House reporter stated that President Lincoln granted clemency to a turkey that was gifted to the family. According to the dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks, President Lincoln’s son Tad intervened on behalf of the turkey and asked for the turkey’s life to be spared.

Turkeys were routinely given as gifts to presidents throughout the years following the Lincoln presidency. In the 1870s, during the Grant administration, a Rhode Island poultry dealer name Horace Vose started sending turkeys to the White House consistently as gifts during the holiday season. Mr. Vose was known as the “Poultry King”.  This tradition continued throughout the decades, expanding not just to individuals gifting the man in charge turkeys, but organizations like the American Legion and the Girl Scouts. The turkey was a symbol of good cheer and an important symbol for the holiday season.

In 1946, The National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board became the official provider of turkeys. For many years, it was determined that President Truman started the modern pardoning of the turkey, however, his presidential library disputes this claim. President Truman was photographed receiving a 42-pound bird, but according to his presidential library, President Truman never pardoned the turkey. Following President Truman, President Eisenhower continued to receive a turkey from the Board. Both of these turkeys, however, were unfortunately not given an official pardon and were most likely headed to the dinner table.

President Kennedy was the first president to spare a turkey, but Kennedy did not officially give a pardon. President Kennedy publicly stated that the turkey gifted to him was not going to be eaten and to be sent back to those who gifted to him.

Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan were all photographed at press conferences where the turkeys were presented as gifts. However, the word pardon was still never formally used. No one is for sure if the birds gifted to these presidents survived.

Turkey Pardons Officially Begin

In 1987, President Reagan became the first president to use the word “pardon” during an informal exchange with reporters. Charlie the turkey was gifted to President Reagan by The National Turkey Federation, pardoned, and then sent to a petting zoo in Fairfax, Virginia.

President George H.W. Bush made the official pardon of a turkey in 1989. President Bush claimed that this turkey was going to be spared and that he would receive an official pardon from the President. The turkey was sent to live at Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Virginia.

From then on, the turkey pardon has been a staple every Thanksgiving.

There have been some funny moments over the years since the turkeys, of course, are live animals. In 1984, the turkey jumped from the platform it was standing on in front of President Reagan. In 1998, the turkey’s handler had to chase down the turkey as he ran away during the middle of President Clinton attempting to pardon the turkey.

The turkeys pardoned are now chosen for their “charisma” and their ability to handle a high-intensity environment for an animal, including flashing cameras.

The Existence of Pardoned Turkeys

Unfortunately, the pardoned turkeys do not have a good track record for longevity. In 2015, Tom One and Tom Two were pardoned. These turkeys were raised for human consumption, so they were overweight and not expected to live long on their own. Popcorn, one of the turkeys pardoned in 2013, died the summer after his pardon. Cobbler and Gobbler, the 2012 pardoned turkeys, both died within a year of being pardoned.

The pardoned turkeys have gone to Disneyland, Disneyworld, and a historic turkey farm in Virginia. President Obama sent a couple of his pardoned turkeys, Tater and Tot, to live at Gobbler’s Rest, located on the campus of Virginia Tech, where the public can learn about turkeys from VT’s animal and poultry science program. While President Obama continued to grant two pardons, only one of the turkeys is the official National Thanksgiving Turkey.

President Trump will most likely continue this White House tradition, as it is an ability for every President to show their humorous side. During the early months of the Trump presidency, a fake report stated that President Trump reversed multiple previous turkey pardons issued by President Obama. However, the story was only satirical.

The presidential pardon of a turkey is a unique tradition that will likely continue for every President. Two lucky turkeys will continue to be pardoned every year from their dinner table fate.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Leave a Comment