Why Does the President Pardon a Turkey for Thanksgiving?


It has become tradition that every year around Thanksgiving, the President of the United States issues a pardon to a turkey. While no one seems to be sure as to the history or reasoning for pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey, the custom has many roots in various aspects of American history.

History of the President Pardoning a Turkey for Thanksgiving

The Harry Truman Presidential Library says that the earliest claim of presidents pardoning turkeys was mentioned by George W. Bush in 2001. According to Bush’s statement, the origins of the president pardoning a turkey date back to Abraham Lincoln, who pardoned his son Tad’s pet turkey while Lincoln was president.

The most popular belief is that the first presidential pardon of a turkey was in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman. However, The Harry Truman Presidential Library debunks that myth due to the lack of papers or other documents saying that Truman actually pardoned a turkey.

President Truman did receive a number of turkeys during the 1947 holiday season from a number of organizations, including the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board. However, Truman affirmed that these turkeys, while not all consumed during the holiday season, were meant for the White House table.

According to National Geographic, presidents continue to receive turkeys from the National Turkey Federation today, but it wasn’t until 1989 when the president officially pardoned the first turkey for Thanksgiving. George H. W. Bush issued an official pardon for the turkey he received this year, and the turkey then lived out the rest of its life at the historic Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia.

Each year, one turkey and one alternate turkey receive pardons from the president.

Why Does the President Pardon a Turkey for Thanksgiving?

There are a few different beliefs as to why presidents started pardoning turkeys for Thanksgiving, but the actual reason remains a mystery.

One belief is that the turkey pardon is in honor of George Washington, the first president of the United States, who raised turkeys at his Mount Vernon estate. Today, turkeys are still kept on the estate grounds and wild turkeys still freely roam the grounds.

Another belief is that a turkey is pardoned in honor of Benjamin Franklin. According to CBS News, Franklin suggested that the national symbol be a turkey when the Founding Fathers were debating insignia for the new nation. Some say that the act of pardoning a turkey respects Franklin’s suggestion, but the idea is not supported by historical resources.

Where Do Pardoned Turkeys Go After Thanksgiving?

Until 2004, presidentially pardoned turkeys and their alternates were sent to the historic Frying Pan Farm Park in Hendon, Virginia.

For the fiftieth anniversary of the Disneyland park in California, Disneyland took over hosting the pardoned turkey and his alternate in 2005. The turkeys and alternates were flown first class to California, where the pardoned turkey would become the grand marshall in Disneyland’s Thanksgiving parade. Afterwards, the turkeys were sent to live in the park’s Big Thunder Ranch.

In 2007, the turkeys were sent to Disney World in Florida and flew there in a plane renamed “Turkey One,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Starting in 2010, the presidentially pardoned turkeys will be sent to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, reports the Los Angeles Times. However, as Mount Vernon strives for historical accuracy and the protected turkey is not like the ones raised by Washington’s family, the turkeys will only be available for public viewing until January 6, 2011, when the estate’s holiday festivities end.

When the turkeys arrive at Mount Vernon, however, the Los Angeles Times reports that the birds will be escorted to their pens in horse-drawn carriages to the sound of a trumpet fanfare.

The custom of the president pardoning turkeys has its roots throughout American history, encompassing some of the country’s most well-known historical figures. For these lucky turkeys, however, the custom of pardoning turkeys for Thanksgiving means they have a chance of living out their lives on a farm, instead of being Thanksgiving leftovers in the refrigerator.