The History and the Reason Behind the Tradition of Pardoning of Turkeys


Arianna Pardue

Drawing of a pardoned turkey by Arianna Pardue

As Thanksgiving Approaches pardoning a turkey has always been a peculiar American tradition. So why do we pardon turkeys, and what is the significance behind the tradition?

The tradition of giving the turkey to the president has been around for decades; however, the turkeys weren’t pardoned. Instead, they were the main course of Christmas dinner that year or sent to a local farm.

The tradition of pardoning the turkey started with former president George H.W. Bush senior. He was the first president to use the word “pardoned” however Former president Abraham Lincoln unofficially pardoned a turkey after his son had grown attached to the bird.

“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.

Pardoned turkeys have been provided by the National Turkey Federation (NTF) for turkey day festivals since 1947. Pardoned turkeys are picked from the chairperson of the NTF’s home state, occasionally from the chair’s own farm.

Although Bush may have started the tradition of the turkeys being pardoned, former president Bill Clinton began the tradition of naming the turkeys. The first turkey pardoned was named Harry; the name was a nod to former president Harry Truman.

Many interesting names for the pardoned turkeys in the past have been Popcorn, Apple, Peanut Butter, Caramel and Jerry. Recently there have been two turkey to be pardoned.

Many pardoned turkeys have traveled to various places, like Disneyland, to be in the Thanksgiving parade. Other turkeys have been sent to universities to be studied, and some have even been sent to farms to live out the rest of their days.

While this an odd tradition, it definitely something to look forward to. Nov. 19 will be the day President Joseph Biden pardons this year’s turkeys. To watch the selected turkey and his spare being pardoned can be seen on YouTube or featured on the news.