The presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey has become an annual event, but the peace pact between the fowl and the White House is a relatively new thing. And in fact, a few presidents actually ate their guests!
The first president to unofficially pardon a turkey was Abraham Lincoln, who instructed the White House to save a bird given to the president. Lincoln’s son had grown fond of the bird (and the president was a big animal lover).
But Lincoln didn’t start a tradition, and neither did President Harry S. Truman, who is often credited as the father of the presidential turkey pardon.
Since Lincoln's time, there had been a steady parade of turkeys heading to the White House as the entree for the President's holiday dinner. Horace Vose of Rhode Island provided many of the birds, starting with President Grant and ending with President Wilson.
Photos from Truman’s administration show the President happily receiving a turkey as a gift from the Poultry and Egg National Board at a public event. President Dwight Eisenhower also was photographed receiving his bird from the turkey lobby.
An article that later appeared in The Washington Post revealed the real reason the men were smiling: They served up their guests on Thanksgiving Day as the main course! In one image from Time magazine, Eisenhower is grinning widely as he's carving a very large turkey.
John F. Kennedy then started a trend by publicly sparing a turkey given to the White House. He decided after receiving a bird on November 19, 1963, that it shouldn’t stay as dinner. The turkey was wearing a sign that said, “Good Eatin' Mr. President.” JFK spared the bird just three days before he was assassinated in Dallas.
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan were all photographed at turkey press conferences with their guests of honor. It’s not 100 percent known if any of the birds survived their White House tour—without being stuffed, dressed, and served on a platter. Reagan joked about pardoning a turkey during the days of the Iran-Contra affair, but the bird was already scheduled to live out its life at a zoo.
It was President George H.W. Bush who made the turkey pardon official when he took office in 1989. Since then, turkeys across the United States have rejoiced, at least one day a year, as the leaders have spared a lucky bird from the Thanksgiving table.
But the turkeys, who are bred to be eaten, have a very short lifespan. The National Turkey Federation, which raises birds for the presidential pardon ceremony, says a pardoned bird will be lucky to live two years after it's saved by the President.
Part of the confusion over the origin of the turkey pardon came from statements made by President Bill Clinton, who said the pardon as a tradition started with Lincoln and Truman. It's true Lincoln did a one-time turkey pardon, but Truman aficionados say there's little evidence the president spared his birds.