In 1789, the year the U.S. Constitution went into effect, President George Washington declared that November 26th would be a national day of thanksgiving. No turkeys were reported pardoned, but “President Washington later provided money, food, and beer to debtors spending the holiday in a New York City jail,” according to the Library of Congress.
Presidential pardon of Thanksgiving turkeys dates back to Abraham Lincoln when President Lincoln’s son Tad asked his father to let the turkey destined for the family dinner table live on. Tad had adopted the bird, named it Jack, and taught it to follow him around the White House grounds.
In 1865, this clip appeared in the Hartford Courant.
“Mr Gay, of the Old Market, sent two enormous Narragansett turkeys to the President last winter. When notified of the gift, Mr. Lincoln said he hoped they were not sent alive, or he never would get a dinner from either one of them; for at Thanksgiving someone sent him a live turkey for the occasion, and Tad entered such a vehement protest against wringing his neck, that the idea of eating him was abandoned. The little fellow declared that the turkey had as good a right to live as any body, and the pampered gobbler remained in the President’s grounds.”
Those presidents that followed Lincoln were not as forgiving. It took President John F. Kennedy to resuscitate the turkey pardon. In 1963, Kennedy stated that he would not eat the turkey presented to him by the California Turkey Advisory Board. Newspapers subsequently reported the bird “pardoned” and a tradition began.
But the first presidential turkey pardoning ceremony was performed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. “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 been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”
Bush continued to pardon a turkey every year he held office and the annual presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey continues to this day. The National Turkey Federation pays for the turkeys to take a presidential-style motorcade from farm to airport flanked by fake Secret Service agents.
As a result of being bred to be much larger than a normal turkey, pardoned birds have short lifespans; only one of the birds, pardoned by President Obama, has lived to see the next Thanksgiving.