Each Thanksgiving, the most powerful person in America stands over a completely oblivious turkey and offers it clemency. It’s kitschy and bizarre, and yet Americans (and the turkey industry) rejoice with each pardon and subsequent send-off to an early retirement. So what’s the story behind the practice?
There are those who think the custom dates back to Lincoln who, in 1863, is said to have received a Christmas turkey, which he allowed his son Tad to keep as a pet. Tad had grown attached to the bird and was hysterical when he heard it was going to be killed. While the reports can’t be verified, it was still more of a display of Lincoln’s benevolence than a pardon.
Another misconception is that President Truman offered the first Presidential Turkey Pardon. Though Truman was the first President to regularly receive Thanksgiving turkeys as gifts while in office, beginning in 1947, they most likely all ended up on his dinner table.
In fact, most of the birds gifted to the men in the White House, with the exception of President Kennedy in 1961, were eaten. It wasn’t until Reagan that the concept was even explored—as a joke. But in 1989, after Reagan’s lighthearted remarks, President H.W. Bush decided to put the practice into action. “This fine tom turkey,” he said that November, “has been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”
Subsequent presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have each pardoned turkeys at Thanksgiving. As of today, 30 turkeys from Willman, Minnesota are still in the running for Obama’s pardon. The two winners will be pardoned on November 23rd and sent off to live the good life at Mount Vernon.