The Intriguing History behind Presidential Turkey Pardons


Last Friday, President Joe Biden pardoned two turkeys named Peanut Butter and Jelly from Jasper, Indiana. Turkey pardons at the White House have been happening for as long as many of us can remember, but the tradition didn’t just appear out of the blue. When did the Commander in Chief start liberating turkeys, and what happens after the turkeys are pardoned?

Origins of the Turkey Pardon

The earliest example of a turkey getting its freedom at the White House goes back to Abraham Lincoln. In 1963, the Great Emancipator spared a turkey that his family planned to eat for Christmas at the urging of his son Tad. The turkey remained as Tad’s pet for at least another year.

Over the following decades, turkeys were occasionally donated to the president as gifts. Starting in 1873 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, a Rhode Island man named Horace Vose gifted a turkey to the White House for Thanksgiving and kept up the tradition for the next 40 years.

By the time Vose died in 1913, the tradition of sending turkeys to the White House had gained visibility, and other organizations took up the opportunity to continue the tradition. In 1921, the American Legion sent a turkey to President Warren G. Harding, and in 1925, First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from the Vermont Girl Scouts. In 1947, the National Turkey Federation took ownership of the tradition when it sent President Harry S. Truman a Thanksgiving turkey.

However, the first turkey to be set free on Thanksgiving was in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy granted a “reprieve” to a turkey sent to the White House. During the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter, turkeys were occasionally spared and sent to live on a farm or petting zoo.

Use of the term “presidential pardon” did not come until 1987, when President Ronald Reagan jokingly used the term in a turkey presentation ceremony. During the ceremony, Reagan quipped that he would pardon the turkey in response to a question from ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson on whether he would pardon Oliver North and John Poindexter, who were at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal. Since Reagan, every US president has maintained the tradition of pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving.

The Turkey Selection Process

The National Turkey Federation has managed the turkey selection process for nearly 75 years. The White House turkeys are raised in the same manner as other turkeys bred for consumption and are typically raised on the farm of whoever currently chairs the National Turkey Federation.  From an initial flock of 40-80 turkeys, a group of 20 is selected based on size and tameness. Handlers then familiarize this group with human contact and music so the turkeys are accustomed to the noises and sounds of a White House ceremony. This group of turkeys are then winnowed down to two finalists who are sent to Washington for the pardoning ceremony.

What Happens to the Pardoned Turkeys?

All pardoned turkeys go to a pen specifically built for them at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The pen includes a small coup to protect the turkeys from the elements plus an area where tourists can stop by to view them.

Unfortunately, however, the turkeys don’t stick around Mount Vernon for too long. Since the turkeys are bred for consumption, their high-protein diet increases their weight to the point that it puts undue stress on their organs, meaning the turkeys only live for another year or two at most after their pardon.

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