White House Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon: History of The Presidential Tradition

by Will Shepard
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Donald Trump on Tuesday (Nov. 24), held the annual turkey pardon. The U.S. president pardoned a turkey named Corn. After the White House ran a Twitter poll, the turkey was selected over the other bird, Cob.

Although turkey pardoning has become a regularity, it is by no means a standard issue for sitting presidents. The tradition, though on-and-off-again, is 73 years old. Now though, it has become a true spectacle.

The tradition is very strange indeed, yet people love it and look forward to the pardon. However, examining it closer brings to light an entirely different interesting view of the event.

The official White House Twitter account posted a video of the two fowl arriving in Washington D.C. for the ceremony.

These turkey’s spent two days at the Willard Hotel – a five-star hotel nonetheless– on Pennsylvania Avenue. The turkeys were properly pampered and enjoyed their stay. The two turkeys, Corn, and Cob, even entered the hotel on a red carpet.

During the hectic Covid-19 pandemic and election season, a turkey pardon is a lighthearted break from the craziness.

Certainly, based on appearances, either of these two birds would be delicious.

Then, on Tuesday, Trump gave a speech to officially pardon the winning turkey. His speech was full of bird puns in an otherwise standard speech. Trump talks briefly about the pandemic and the vaccines. He also thanks healthcare workers and scientists working on the pandemic.

The History of the Turkey Pardon

Delving into the history of the turkey pardon is fascinating. This year, there were 30 turkeys hand raised for the special day. And thanks to the hard work of the turkey lobby, National Turkey Federation, the pardoning went off without a hitch.

As Trump mentions in his speech, Abraham Lincoln apparently gave the first pardon to a turkey. When Lincoln’s son, Tad, begged his father to save one of the turkeys that the family was supposed to eat in 1863.

Reportedly, back in the 1870s, U.S. presidents received gifts of plump turkeys. This is due to Horace Vose sending his best turkeys to the White House. However, not all of the turkeys that Vose sent to the White House were eaten. So, as a result, that was the unofficial beginning of the turkey pardon.

Vose and his farm earned national recognition for his gifts and thus became well-known. He kept up the tradition for roughly 40 years until he passed away.

1947 stands as the first real pardoning of a turkey when President Harry Truman decided to give it a pardon. Perhaps by accident, after getting a number of turkeys as gifts, Truman says that he might save the birds until Christmas.

In December 1948, Truman accepted two turkeys and remarked that they would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner. There was clearly no plan for these birds to receive a presidential pardon.

Where the Pardon Is Now

Though the tradition was irregular, President Kennedy had a similarly funny interaction with the media. After receiving his turkey gift, he said, “Let’s keep him going.”

Later, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter’s wife actually sent a turkey to live at a zoo. This took place after the family decided not to eat the bird.

So, while the tradition of turkey pardon is funny and lighthearted, its founding fathers most likely didn’t foresee the spectacle it has since become.

Corn is a “very fortunate turkey” indeed. At the conclusion of Trump’s speech, he walks over to where Corn is standing on a table and officially pardons the bird.

“Corn, I hereby grant you a full pardon. Thank you Corn, what a bird.”

[H/T NPR]

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