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George W. Hopper Law Library

College of Law

The Presidential Turkey Pardon    turkey

Each year the President is presented with a live turkey by the National Turkey Federation. During the ceremony the President pardons the bird, saving him from becoming Thanksgiving dinner. There are many myths regarding this fairly recent tradition. Here are the myths, and the truths.



The Myth

The tradition began in 1947 with President Harry Truman.

The Truth

The National Turkey Federal presented President Truman with a Christmas bird on December 15, 1947. According to the Truman Library, there is no record of President Truman ever pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey. 

The Myth

Abraham Lincoln's son Tad named a turkey given to President Lincoln "Jack" and begged his father to save the turkey's life after discovering it would be served for Christmas dinner.

The Truth

 There is no factual basis to this story and even if it did have its basis in fact, the word "pardon" is used no where in the telling of the story.

The Myth

John F. Kennedy was given a gobbler by the California Turkey Advisory Board in 1963. Newspapers reported that he had "pardoned" it.

The Truth

President Kennedy merely commented that he did not plan to eat the bird.

The True Origins

President George H. W. Bush in 1989 said the following when presented with a Thanksgiving turkey for his family: "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." President Bush pardoned Thanksgiving birds in each succeeding year of his presidency, and thus the tradition was born.

Now, every year the National Turkey and the Alternate National Turkey both receive pardons that save them from becoming Thanksgiving dinner. They live out their days in petting zoos or on farms. However, the pardoned birds rarely have long to enjoy their freedom. Commercially-raised turkeys don't live long, as they grow too large for their body structure and are susceptible to disease.

Presidential Remarks

The text of two presidents' remarks at the turkey presentation/pardoning ceremonies can be found in the Compilation of Presidential Documents, available through FDsys (formerly GPO Access).

George W. Bush, November 19, 2001

William J. Clinton, November 22, 1995


Sources Consulted:

Colin Bessonette. "Q & A", The Atlanta Journal-Constitution B2 (December 3, 2002).

Karen Davis, Presidential Turkey 'Pardons' are a Recent Phenomenon, The Washington Times A20 (December 4, 1998).

Government Printing Office, Compilation of Presidential Documents, (, The Ungobbled Gobbler,, (last updated March 20, 2008).


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