The Unusual Origin Of The Thanksgiving Presidential Turkey Pardon

A common but wrong explanation for why the president of the United States saves two turkeys from the feast of Thanksgiving with a special pardon points to 1863. In that year, as Smithsonian Magazine describes, the Lincolns received a turkey for the holidays. However, Tad Lincoln, the youngest of the Lincoln children, had adopted and named the bird Jack. When Lincoln explained to his son that Jack was for supper, Tad responded, "I can't help it. He's a good turkey, and I don't want him killed." As usual, Lincoln caved to his youngest and, while doing so, indulged in his sense of humor by writing a reprieve for Jack. 

Certainly, this is the first example of a president pardoning a turkey. However, while later presidents may have harkened back to this scene as an origin, an explanation which the White House's website also provides, its status as the ceremony's origin is mythmaking. First, the turkey in question was a Christmas turkey, not a Thanksgiving one. Second, Thanksgiving wouldn't become a holiday until years after the Civil War.

The first time a president spared a Thanksgiving turkey was John F. Kennedy in 1963. As another White House History page explains, the National Turkey Federation had presented JFK with a turkey. The federation had presented the president with a turkey to eat for every year since 1947. This time, though, JFK interrupted the process by saying, "Let's keep him going." However, Kennedy didn't refer to this as a pardon.

The first pardon

After JFK's declining of the turkey, a few other presidents like Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter refused the Federation's turkey. The first time the idea of a Thanksgiving turkey actually receiving a pardon was due to the Iran-Contra scandal, the affair in which the Reagan administration used the money gained from selling Iranian terrorists weapons for hostage releases to fund the insurgent Contras in Nicaragua.

As NPR recounts, Sam Donaldson, a reporter for ABC News, asked Reagan during the National Turkey Federation's presentation whether he would pardon the people involved in the scandal. Reagan, who usually dispatched his turkeys to a petting zoo, dodged the question, joking, "If they'd given me a different answer on Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him."

Later, the use of the word "pardon" was when Reagan's vice president Bush ascended to the presidency and faced his first turkey presentation: "[This turkey is] 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."

In between CNN's musings on whether Donald Trump, who has remained reclusive since his defeat, will attend the turkey pardoning ceremony and them incorrectly stating that this is the 73rd pardoning — it's been 73 years since the National Turkey Federation began presenting the President a turkey, which was originally eaten — we should remember how the farce began as a president's attempt to deflect from his law-breaking.