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Who was the first president to pardon a turkey? The tradition may be older than you think




Each year, the president “pardons” one or two turkeys before the Thanksgiving festivities. While it may be one of the more eccentric jobs the president takes on during their tenure, the yearly “pardoning” has become a tradition of its own.

But how did the tradition start and who was the first president to pardon a turkey?

The national Thanksgiving turkey presentation has been observed since 1947, according to the National Turkey Federation. So, before you dig into your bird this holiday season, here’s a primer on its annual pardoning.

Who was the first president to pardon a turkey?

It is believed Abraham Lincoln was the first president to pardon a turkey in 1863. One story goes that Lincoln’s son Tad became attached to the turkey that was fated to be the family’s Christmas meal, the History Channel reports. Lincoln was said to have spared the bird from becoming dinner, according to an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks. This account, however, may be overstated.

Starting in 1947, the National Turkey Federation began giving the president a turkey ahead of Thanksgiving. “The White House Presentation signals the beginning of the holiday season of national thanks, historically representing agriculture’s bountiful harvest,” the federation’s website states. Each year, the president receives the National Thanksgiving Turkey, along with an alternate.

The first president to receive a live turkey was Harry S. Truman, who is often credited as being the first to pardon a turkey. But Truman does not hold the title. In fact, Truman said of the turkeys he received in 1948, they would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner. Many confuse Truman to be the first, however, since his presidency did mark the start of the official turkey presentation.

The first president to pardon a turkey was John F. Kennedy, according to the White House Historical Association. The words “pardon” and “reprieve” were used by the Washington Post in a 1963 article, with Kennedy saying “Let’s keep him going” in regard to the turkey.

It wasn’t until the George H.W. Bush presidency that pardoning turkeys became common place for the president. According to the History Channel, on Nov. 17, 1989, Bush said of the turkey:

“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.”

– President George H.W. Bush

Since then, two lucky birds get to live out the remainder away their days without worrying about ending up on the Thanksgiving dinner table.

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