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Why Do Presidents Pardon Turkeys?

by Countable | 11.23.17

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump pardoned two turkeys ― Drumstick and WIshbone, taking his turn in a decades-old Thanksgiving tradition.

Why do presidents pardon turkeys?

According to the White House Historical Association, Abraham Lincoln was actually the first president to pardon a turkey, although the tradition didn’t start until much later in U.S. history. Apparently, someone brought a live turkey to the Lincoln White House for Christmas in 1863, but Lincoln’s son Tad was so horrified by the idea of killing and eating the bird, that the president decided to spare the bird’s life.

Beginning in the 1873, "Poultry King" Horace Vose sent turkeys to the White House every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas for the First Family to enjoy until his death in 1913. But the Vose turkeys, which the WHHA notes “never weighed fewer than 30 pounds and sometimes topped the scales at 50 pounds,” were already “slaughtered and dressed.”

It wasn’t until Harry S. Truman took office that uneaten turkeys became a tradition at the White House. In the wake of World War II, Truman had instituted an unofficial set of food-saving policies to help the U.S. and Europe recover from the war, including "Meatless Tuesdays," “Eggless Mondays” and, yes, “Poultryless Thursdays.” The latter infuriated the poultry lobby in the U.S. and farmers started sending birds to the White House in protest. Many pin the origins of the turkey pardon to a gobbler sent to Truman for Christmas, 1947, just after he ended the policy.

But the Truman library argues that he never actually pardoned the turkey, he just took a photo with one. Truman apparently even joked at the time that he could send it home to his family in Missouri where it would feed 25 of his relatives, according to CBS News.

From President John F. Kennedy forward, presidents have held similar photo-ops with donated live turkeys every year. But it wasn’t until George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, that the term "pardon" was used and the tradition was truly born.

Now, two turkeys are sent to the White House annually, with one chosen as the official turkey to be pardoned. President Obama was the first president to pardon both turkeys when he took office in 2009, after some pleading by his daughters Sasha and Malia.

What happens after their pardon?

After their pardons, past turkeys have either gone to a farm near Mount Vernon, Disneyland or Disneyworld.

But if you’re hoping to make a trip to go see the pardoned White House turkeys, you might want to save your money. CNN reported in 2013 that all of the previous years’ turkeys at the farm near Mount Vernon were dead. They’re bred to be roasted and they aren’t build to carry all that extra weight for very long.

What about Drumstick and Wishbone?

Rather than going off to a farm or Big Thunder Mountain, Tater and Tot will be the first White House turkeys to go off to college after their pardons. They are heading to "Gobbler’s Rest" at Virginia Tech, “where they will be cared for by veterinarians and students of Virginia Tech’s Animal and Poultry Sciences Department,” according to the White House. There they'll join Tater and Tot -- the turkeys pardoned last year by then-President Barack Obama.

Happy Thanksgiving!

— Sarah Mimms & Eric Revell

Photo via the National Archives

Countable

Written by Countable

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(34)
  • Karan
    11/23/2017
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    “BREAKING NEWS: 9th Circuit Court of of Appeals declares President Trump’s Turkey Pardons Unconstitutional; DOJ promises to appeal Decision to Supreme Court setting up potential showdown.”

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  • BeStrong
    11/23/2017
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    Countable and co-app users...Happy Thanksgiving 🦃. Today is a day for family, friends. A time of reflection for the small and large gifts in our lives. And perhaps a moment to remember that we are united in so many more ways than not. Enjoy your day!

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  • Amy
    11/23/2017
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    A turkey pardoning turkeys.

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  • Marylynn
    11/23/2017
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    I think this tradition needs to stop. It's a major PR stunt and for what? I have to say I agree with Lee, although one exception, Drumstick for president and no pardon for the Liar in Chief.

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  • Joseph
    11/23/2017
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    Breaking News: pardon turkey gets approved by Senate as the new Secretary of Agriculture.

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  • Lee
    11/23/2017
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    Drumstick for President and pardon our President from any further responsibilities. Happy Thanksgiving!

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  • Dave
    11/23/2017
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    This president is just practicing for the rest of the turkeys in WH.

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  • Karen
    11/23/2017
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    This year instead of turkeys, he’ll pardon himself.

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  • Ureeka
    11/23/2017
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    Trump knows how to seize the moment by throwing a needed jab at Hussein Obama, announcing he has been reversing as many of the former president's socialist EOs as possible. Let's hope and pray there will be no pardons for hardened criminals Hillary, holder, John posesta and Lois Lerner. That would be a season to truly give thanks for!

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  • Jackie
    11/23/2017
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    First of many pardons Trump will give to his family. Wonder who will pardon him.

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  • tituswife
    11/23/2017
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    A blessed Thanksgiving to we in the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

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  • NoHedges
    11/23/2017
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    Why is it ok to denounce Christopher Columbus’ impact a couple months ago, but celebrate the Puritan hatred and deceit today? This is why we must stop trying to change our heritage to conform to our sense of truth; rather, we need to accept and learn from history, in order to build a better tomorrow.

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  • CannabisSavedMe
    11/23/2017
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    Trump please pardon Gary Thibodeau and let him go home to die with is wife. He has been in prison over 20 years for a crime he did not commit. He is on his deathbed dying of cancer.

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  • Bill
    11/25/2017
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    Did you hear about the President pardoning the Turkeys? He only pardoned the white meat!

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  • operaman
    11/23/2017
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    To keep the turkey from crossing Pennsylvania Ave. in heavy traffic.

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  • Monique
    11/23/2017
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    I️ don’t know why the other President s did and this one doesn’t usually follow the traditions. I’m going to say Donald Trump pardoned a turkey because he is an asshole

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  • Gail
    11/23/2017
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    Presidents pardon turkeys to pave the road for pardoning themselves for obstruction of justice and colluding with a foreign government to sway the elections of the United States of America.

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  • Kwesi
    11/27/2017
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    It’s because they are a bunch of jive turkeys themselves! Jive Turkey was a derogatory slang word in African American Vernacular English (Ebonics), used to refer to someone who was unreliable, made empty promises, or who was full of bluster.

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  • Marianne
    11/23/2017
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    Because they can’t pardon themselves?

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  • David
    11/23/2017
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    Not to insult turkeys but if we call convicted felons turkeys, then Obama granted executive clemency to 1,927 of them where 1,715 were commutations and 504 were life sentences, with an additional 212 pardons. President Trump will never come close Obama’s record in pardoning turkeys.

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