Strange Presidential Traditions: Turkey Pardoning

No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
Alexander Hamilton
With Thanksgiving upon us, it’s time to reflect on the culinary embodiment of this American tradition — the turkey. The turkey’s ascendency to fame has its humble origins as far back as the First Thanksgiving in 1621.

In 1789, when a group of congressman had a banquet in honor of a Thanksgiving celebration, they realized the chef had put no turkey on the table. Alexander Hamilton said, “No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” However, it wouldn’t be until after 1800 that turkey would become a mainstay of the Thanksgiving feast.

By 1857, turkey became traditional fare on New England Thanksgiving menus. Oddly enough, the turkey’s induction as a cultural icon spawned the presidential tradition of turkey pardoning. The origin of this uniquely American tradition is somewhat murky but most trace it back to President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

President Barack Obama will carry on this tradition on Wednesday, sparing two turkeys from the first family’s dinner plates.

Why Turkey?

From the time of the First Thanksgiving in 1621, many Americans celebrated some form of a Thanksgiving. George Washington issued the first presidential “Thanksgiving Proclamation” in 1789.

However, the official tradition of Thanksgiving started when Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday during the Civil War in 1863. Historical novelist Andrew Beahrs attributes the turkey’s ascendency to fame to magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. She lobbied Lincoln for years to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday and wrote novels “romanticizing” about mouthwatering turkey feasts.

According to historian Karen Davis, turkey had become a mainstay of New England Thanksgivings by the 1850s, but “it often passed unobserved” in other parts of the country as late as 1900.

Writer Michelle Tsai takes a more economical approach. She suggests turkeys became a mainstay of the holiday feast due to three main factors: “They were fresh, affordable, and big enough to feed a crowd.”

Turkeys Spared By Presidential Pardons

Turkeys have occasionally been spared from the holiday feast since the first official Thanksgiving in 1863. Abraham Lincoln supposedly granted a stay of execution for his family’s turkey. As the story goes, his son Tad grew close to their turkey, walked it around on a leash, and begged his father to spare the bird. So, Lincoln reprieved the turkey of his holiday fate.

Since the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the honor of providing the president with a turkey fell to one man, poultry dealer Horace Vose.  When he died 4 decades later in 1913, the floodgates opened and according to the White House, “By 1914, the opportunity to give a president a turkey was open to all comers, and poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship, and glee.”

Harry S. Truman started the tradition of the photo ops in the Rose Garden with the turkey, but he never granted a pardon to the turkeys:

Truman even told reporters that the turkeys would “come in handy” for dinner.

In 1963, shortly before Kennedy’s assassination, he was presented with a huge 55-pound turkey but sent it back to the farm, joking, “We’ll just let this one grow.”

Nixon also sent his turkeys back to the farm, although without a formal pardon. The first president to use the word pardon was probably Ronald Reagan in 1987. In the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, reporters were pressuring him about his intent to pardon some of his aides. Then, when Reagan was asked about the future of the turkey in front of him, he joked, “I’ll pardon him.”

But it wasn’t until George H.W. Bush’s first Thanksgiving as president in 1989 that he announced:

“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.”

Every president since 1989 has updheld the turkey pardon. There is no definitive account of why President Bush granted the pardon; even archivists at the Bush Presidential Library claim no one really knows why he did it. Bush’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said, “I’m sure some speechwriter came up with some unique way of letting turkeys live.”

President Obama has brought his own humor to the tradition. In 2013, Obama reflected on the turkeys journey to the White House:

“It was, quite literally, ‘The Hunger Games.’”

On Wednesday, November 26, at 2:00 p.m. EST, Obama will announce the names of this year’s turkeys and pardon them in a ceremony in the Rose Garden. Brothers Gary and Cole Cooper brought the turkeys to a Washington, D.C., hotel on Tuesday from a farm in Ohio. Gary Cooper said:

“The turkeys tried to order room service, but we stopped that from happening.”

Photo: Public Domain