Pardoning the turkey: A White House tradition ... sort of

President Eisenhower feeds a cranberry to his turkey. / Photo: Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library/NARA

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - President Donald Trump bestowed the annual presidential turkey pardon on Drumstick, this year's winning White House turkey. In recent years, the White House has asked the country to vote on which turkey receives the official pardon from the president.

The birds, Wishbone and Drumstick, were supplied by the National Turkey Federation and traveled to Washington in style, even staying in a room at the city's prestigious Willard Intercontinental Hotel.

Though Drumstick was the only one officially pardoned, Wishbone's life will also be spared. Both birds will live out their days on the Virginia Tech campus with Tater and Tot, the turkeys pardoned by President Barack Obama in 2016.

The White House Thanksgiving turkey pardon is one of the more well-known pardons routinely made by presidents, regardless of party affiliation. The tradition is thought to have started with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 but for a Christmas holiday dinner, according to the White House Historical Association.

Washington reporter Noah Brooks documented the historic event. “A live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”

The gifting of turkeys to the White House dates back to the 1870s when Horace Vose, a dealer of poultry from Rhode Island, started sending birds to the White House. His family supplied birds to the president until 1914.

First lady Grace Coolidge, the wife of President Calvin Coolidge, was gifted a turkey by a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925. At the time, the Girl Scouts was a relatively new organization, having gotten its start in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low.

Four years later, champion turkeys from the Minnesota Arrowhead Association were gifted to President Herbert Hoover. But the birds were not pardoned.

There is speculation that the modern tradition of the pardoning became popular with Harry S. Truman's presidency. The President Harry S. Truman Library & Museum contradicts those claims, saying it has no evidence of the president's turkey pardons:

“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. Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table. In any event, the Library has been unable to determine when the tradition of pardoning the turkey actually began.”

Truman received a turkey for Thanksgiving in 1947 but it is not clear if the turkey's life was spared. In December 1948 he was recorded to have been presented with two turkeys and said they would "come in handy" for Christmas dinner. These events were more about the White House and presidents receiving the birds as gifts. They were not like the pardoning events we see current administrations participate in.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was presented with a Turkey in 1954. During the event, the president placed a cranberry in his palm and fed it to the large bird.

President John F. Kennedy was presented with a turkey in 1961 but he is not pictured receiving the bird in any of the photographs held by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Libary and Museum. In 1963 the National Turkey Federation, the same organization that provided the turkey to Trump this year, presented a turkey to Kennedy.

During the ceremony, the president remarked "Let's keep him going," effectively bestowing a pardon on the bird.

The event was just three days before his assassination.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was presented with a turkey wearing a sign stating "Good Eating Mr. President" on the front in 1967. Johnson did not pardon the bird.

President Richard Nixon accepted a bird in 1969. According to the White House Historical Association, the bird was pardoned but the event was not documented at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum or Library of Congress.

Later Nixon's wife would accept the Thanksgiving turkey in 1973 on behalf of her husband and send it to Oxon Hill Children's Farm.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford was presented with a turkey and took photos at the event, but there is little evidence that he offered a reprieve, with the exception of the White House Historical Association.

President Ford later delivered remarks on Nov. 28, 1974, proclaiming the holiday a day of national thanksgiving.

"I call upon all Americans to gather together in and places of worship on this date, to join in offering gratitude for the countless blessings our people enjoy, and to share with the elderly and the unfortunate this special day that brings us all closer together," Ford said.

Four years later in 1978, first lady Rosalynn Carter and her daughter Amy accepted a Thanksgiving turkey and also offered "reprieve" to their bird. President Carter was not pictured at that event. The first family chose to send the bird to Evans Farm Inn.

President Ronald Reagan accepted a turkey from the National Turkey Federation in 1981. As the president arrived from the Oval Office the bird began to frantically flap its wings to make an escape. When a member of the press asked Reagan, "What are you going to do with it (the turkey)?" Reagan responded, "eat 'em," and pointed at the bird.

In 1987 Reagan officially pardoned his turkey and it was sent to a petting zoo, according to the Reagan Foundation and Institute.

The pardoning event at the White House then became an annual event with President George H.W. Bush. in 1989.

"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,” Bush said.

President Bill Clinton also continued the tradition and pardoned the turkeys throughout his presidency.

"I hereby pardon this turkey. There are so many turkeys in Washington, I should pardon at least one a year, I think," Clinton said, according to the Clinton Library.

During the George W. Bush presidency, Thanksgiving birds with names became a more common event. In 2003, the birds were named Stars and Stripes. He was also the first president to institute the voting on the bird's names via the White House webpage.

President Barack Obama also pardoned turkeys throughout the eight years of his presidency. His daughters Sasha and Malia joined him for the pardoning of Courage the turkey. The bird was sent to Disneyland for the holiday parade.

"You know there are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office... and then there are moments like this, where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland," Obama said.

Editor's note: Historical information on White House pardons used in this story was provided by The White House Historical Association, presidential libraries and the Library of Congress.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off