The Tradition of Presidential Turkey Pardoning

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Ana Clara Monaco, S&G Editor

For nearly nine months, news headlines have been dominated by negative reportings and circumstances: the increasing death toll of Covid-19, global disasters ranging from the Australian fires to the Beirut explosion, instances of police brutality and the subsequent emergence of Black Lives Matter protests, anxiety concerning the election and its legitimacy; yet the country received uplifting and pleasant news Wednesday morning: Corn the turkey will live to see another year- hopefully a better one. Through a tradition informally dating back to the 1870s, American presidents have saved turkeys from death at the blade and a fate as a Thanksgiving meal, capturing the imagination of the public and maintaining a sense of normalcy in otherwise-hectic years.

Turkey “pardoning”, typically overlooked and forgotten until the week of the ceremony, emerged from the veritable American practice of sending well-fed turkeys to the White House– beginning with poultry dealer Horace Vose’s yearly offering to President Grant and eventually a habit adopted by the public as a symbol of patriotism and partisanship. Although these gifts were typically cooked and served on the White House table on November 26, the institution of turkey-giving as a national tradition arguably inspired and brought about the modern ceremony. As President Truman was the first to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation, the origin of “pardoning” has been traced back to his 1947 term. Kennedy publicly took pity on a 55-pound gifted bird in 1963, mentioning during a presentation that as a “Thanksgiving present to him”, the turkey would live. Mythmakers have also traced the ceremony to Abraham Lincoln, whose son Tad supposedly kept a Christmas turkey as a pet for some weeks, causing his father to oblige Tad’s pleas and free the bird. Already established as a time-honored photo op of presenting a plump gobbler to the chief executive in mid-November, George H.W. Bush formally furthered the tradition in 1989, promising the turkey “that he [would] not end up on anyone’s dinner table”. The ceremony has continued for 31 years, signifying 31 mammoth birds rescued from a gruesome fate- ranging from Clinton’s Harry and Jerry to Obama’s Caroline and Apple to Trump’s Corn. Most of the birds, however, do not survive for many days following the ceremony; as they were bred for consumption and consequently fed large quantities of food, their skeletons and organs are incapable of supporting the extreme weight of their bodies. The tradition, regardless of the future wellbeing of the turkeys, has become an American holiday staple, representing unity as a country and regularity as a society- growing more and more crucial in years to come.