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Escaping the Thanksgiving Table: The 'Unifying' Tradition of Presidential Pardons for Turkeys

The national Thanksgiving turkeys, Liberty and Bell, arrive for a pardoning ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Nov. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The national Thanksgiving turkeys, Liberty and Bell, arrive for a pardoning ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Nov. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Each year, the White House celebrates Thanksgiving by issuing a presidential pardon that allows one or two lucky turkeys to go free. So how and when did this fun tradition of turkey pardons start? That depends on who you ask.

This year, President Joe Biden pardoned two turkeys named Liberty and Bell. "These birds have a new appreciation for the word, 'let freedom ring,'" he said.

In a previous White House ceremony, President Donald Trump, pardoned a bird saying, "I'm pleased to report that, unlike millions of other turkeys at this time of the year, Drumstick has a very, very bright future ahead of him."

Long-Standing Tradition

Those are just two examples in a long line of pardons allowing a turkey a new lease on life.

"It is a long-standing White House tradition in which the National Turkey Federation will present a turkey to the president, and the president will pardon the bird," explained Lina Mann, a historian with the White House Historical Association.

"So this has been going on in a lot of different forms for a long time," she said.

The question is often asked, "When did this tradition of pardoning turkeys for Thanksgiving begin?" One theory is it started in 1863 during the Lincoln White House after the president's son, Tad, begged his father to spare a turkey he had adopted as a friend and playmate. 

'Magnificent Mischief'

Bestselling author and broadcast journalist Raymond Arroyo wrote a children's book about Tad and his turkey entitled, The Magnificent Mischief of Tad Lincoln

"After his brother dies, Tad Lincoln befriends a turkey; now the turkey was sent to the White House as the centerpiece of the holiday table," Arroyo told CBN News. "Tad didn't know that; he trains the turkey to do tricks; he walks it on a leash."

"He teaches it to eat out of his hand," Arroyo continued. "He befriends this turkey, and the big day comes when the chef comes and picks the turkey up and takes him to the kitchen."

"Tad freaks out, and I won't tell you the rest of the story, but it leads to this national holiday tradition," he added.

Other Explanations

Mann, however, is not convinced it began with the Lincolns.

"That is a really popular story, however, the sourcing for it gets a little tricky," she shared. "It's just told in one source, and it's told two years after the fact. And also it was a Christmas bird rather than a Thanksgiving turkey."

"So a lot of questions about the veracity of that particular account," she continued.

The president of the National Turkey Federation Joel Brandenberger tells CBN News the official presentation dates back to 1947 during President Harry Truman's administration. He explains the presidential pardons actually began in the late 1980s.

"Beginning in 1989, President George H.W. Bush began the tradition of pardoning the turkey at Thanksgiving, and the pardoning has occurred every year since 1989 as part of the ceremony," he said.

'Good Feelings'

Regardless of when the birds first escaped the Thanksgiving table, the tradition lives on.

"I think it's endured because it's fun; there's a lot of traditions at the White House that are much more serious in nature which makes sense honoring the presidency, but this particular tradition is a fun one," said Mann. 

"It also highlights the turkey and poultry industry in the United States right around the holidays, so that could be a boost for those industries," she continued. "But really it has become a really fun media spectacle."

"I've been fortunate to be at events dating back to 1991, and each administration, each president puts their own unique stamp on it, does some fun, innovative things," Brandenberger explained.

"There are not that many events that generate nothing but good feelings in our nation's capital, and this is fortunate to be one of them," he added.

Life Lessons

Arroyo adds there are greater life lessons to be learned in the pardoning of a turkey, pointing out that what happened between President Lincoln and his son came during the Civil War.

"It's really a standing memorial to their affection, their love, and the mercy and forgiveness that Abe Lincoln taught his son, and his son taught him, at a moment of real crisis for the country," he shared.

Brandenberger and Mann agree on the greater meaning.

"I think there's definitely some lessons in mercy and forgiveness, particularly around that idea of Thanksgiving," Mann said.

"We are so blessed in this country, and it's a time to give thanks for it, and having the president do this, this ceremony with the turkey which is the symbol of Thanksgiving, it's just been, it's been a great way to sort of give a unifying message at this time of year," Brandenberger said.

It's a unifying message of Thanksgiving, but also a time to have a little fun.


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