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The Confused History of Turkey Pardoning

The+Confused+History+of+Turkey+Pardoning

Every November, the president takes part in perhaps one of the most ridiculous traditions of the United States. The president’s annual turkey pardoning takes place sometime in November, and the tradition is famous for its dad jokes and absurdity. However, very few people know anything about how this practice started. The history of turkey pardoning is fuzzy and often misconstrued. Even presidents participating in the tradition have gotten their facts wrong. 

Every year, the White House hosts a ceremony where they ‘pardon’ two turkeys. A presidential pardon is an expression of forgiveness from the president. If you were convicted of a crime, the president could pardon you and you wouldn’t face any punishment. A pardon doesn’t signify innocence, but a president might grant you a pardon if they thought the convict established good conduct or if the convict recognized that they were responsible for their crimes.

While turkey pardoning is a relatively recent tradition, the presidents have been receiving turkeys for years. However, these turkeys were originally displayed to the public and then eaten by the First Family. The turkeys were once provided by Horace Vose, nicknamed ‘The Poultry King’ at the time. From 1873 to his death in 1913, he would send unofficial Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys to the White House. In 1947, the National Turkey Federation began sending the president turkeys.

The first president that we know of to have spared a turkey is Abraham Lincoln, leading many people to believe that he was the president who started the tradition. According to an 1865 dispatch by American journalist Noah Brooks, however, this is false. Lincoln reprieved his turkey because his son, Tad Lincoln, asked him to spare the turkey. Additionally, the turkey wasn’t even meant for Thanksgiving – It was a Christmas turkey.

The second president often credited for starting the tradition is Harry S. Truman. This has also been proven false — The Truman Library and Museum have reported that there’s no record of him ever sparing a turkey. This accusation likely stems from the fact that Truman was the first president to receive a turkey from the National Turkey Federation and Poultry and Egg National Board.

The first Thanksgiving turkey to be reprieved on record was spared in 1963 by John F. Kennedy. The turkey was forty pounds and had a sign around its neck that said, “GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!” John F. Kennedy did reprieve the turkey, but only because he thought it was too scrawny to eat. However, a Los Angeles Times article recording the event was titled “Turkey gets president pardon.”

The first president to coin the term ‘pardon’ during a turkey presentation was Ronald Reagan. He used the word in a joke to deflect from questions about the Iran-Contra affair. The turkey involved, Charlie, was going to be sent to a petting zoo instead. When Sam Donaldson from ABC News asked Reagan if he’d pardon the key players involved in the scandal – Oliver North and John Poindexter — the president said, “If they’d given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him.”

After Reagan used the word, the event became the turkey pardoning as we know it today, In 1989, George H.W. Bush formalized the word and turned the turkey presentation into a turkey pardoning when he said, “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 [we’ll} allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

Turkey’s pardoning has become a beloved tradition throughout the United States. While the origins of the tradition are often misunderstood, it’s important to educate yourself correctly. The next time you watch the turkey pardoning on television, you’ll have newfound information about the true history of the event.

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