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Spared from the dinner plate: The unique White House tradition of pardoning turkeys

Since the 19th century, the birds have received pardons, clemency and been shipped off to live on farms.
Credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — For years, turkeys have been sent to the White House to adorn the president's Thanksgiving table right next to the stuffing and the gravy. 

And they did, for a while. But over the years quite a few of our feathered friends have been pardoned, granted clemency and given a second shot at life on the farm.

So, how did one of the White House's most unique traditions get its start? We'll have to head back to the 1800s.

The White House Historical Association records President Abraham Lincoln as the first leader of our nation to spare a turkey's life. He reportedly granted it clemency in 1863. 

"According to one story, Lincoln’s son Tad begged his father to write out a presidential pardon for the bird meant for the family’s Christmas table, arguing it had as much a right to live as anyone," White House archives read.

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The turkeys to follow weren't as lucky. According to the White House, Americans began sending holiday turkeys to the president in 1873 when Ulysses S. Grant was in office. 

A Rhode Island man, Horace Vose, was tasked with finding the “noblest gobbler in all that little state" and did so until the National Turkey Federation took over in 1947. It's around that time, the White House says the traditional turkey receiving ceremony began in the Rose Garden. 

"Back then, however, birds were more likely to be destined for the White House dining table than the easy life on a farm," it wrote.

President Harry Truman was even quoted as saying he'd bring his gifted turkey home to Missouri because his 25 relatives "require a lot."

Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

It wouldn't be until 1963 that the next presidential turkey skipped a dinner plate when President John F. Kennedy spared a bird with a sign that read "GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!" around its neck.

“We’ll just let this one grow,” the White House records Kennedy said.

In the years to follow, the White House says turkeys during Richard Nixon's presidency were sent to a children's farm. While those sent to President Jimmy Carter were shipped off to a mini zoo by the first lady.

But you might be shocked to know that the first official turkey pardon didn't happen until President George H.W. Bush took office. That means, as a nation, we've only been pardoning turkeys for 32 years.

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“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 presented a Presidential pardon as of right now—and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here," the White House Historical Association records Bush said.

Even though the turkey that year had the fate of going to live out its days at the unfortunately named Frying Pan Park, the tradition of pardoning turkeys that we've come to know today was born.

The most recent turkey to be pardoned was a 42-pound bird named "Corn" under the Donald Trump presidency after America voted to spare it in 2020. 

Since the tradition officially began, more than 40 turkeys have been pardoned by U.S. presidents.

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