• Jim Parks

Why do presidents pardon turkeys?

A turkey may not be on the Great Seal of the United States, as Ben Franklin would have preferred, but the bird has a surprisingly robust history at the White House.


From the 1870s until 1913, turkeys were provided to the White House for holiday meals primarily by Rhode Island poultry producer Horace Vose. After his death, it was a free for all. The White House Historical Association wrote:


“By 1914, the opportunity to give a turkey to a President was open to everyone, and poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship, and glee. In 1921, an American Legion post furnished bunting for the crate of a gobbler en route from Mississippi to Washington, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925. The turkey gifts had become established as a national symbol of good cheer.”


The first time a turkey was granted clemency was in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln instructed the White House staff to spare a bird which had become a favorite of his son, reported the Constitution Daily.


Some say President Truman pardoned a turkey or two, but the Truman Library does not agree.


Records indicate it was 1963 before another President spared a turkey destined for the White House kitchen. While both President Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy showed mercy, neither officially pardoned their birds. President Ronald Reagan joked about a pardon, but the first official Presidential turkey pardon was issued by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.


So, why do Presidents pardon turkeys? We’re not really sure. We know where pardoned turkeys go, though.


For many years, like Super-Bowl-winning quarterbacks, they went to amusement parks in Florida and California. The turkeys helped lead Thanksgiving Day Parades. More recently, “...the spared turkeys are sent to an enclosure at Virginia Tech called ‘Gobbler’s Rest’... where they get to frolic with other free turkeys,” reported The Independent.