More Thanksgiving trivia. The famous Turkey Pardon has a colorful history. Arguably originating in 1863, it was first a Christmas turkey pardoned – not a formal pardon, but rather an Executive Order to the butcher not to kill and prepare the turkey (see below for details). The incident did not inspire a grand tradition of mercy towards our feathered friends, and for 12 years it was tradition for the First Family to buy a turkey, slaughter it, prepare it for dinner, and eat it for Thanksgiving (a new national holiday, as mentioned in my previous post). It was in 1873 when Rhode Island poultry magnate Horace Vose sent President Grant a turkey for Thanksgiving every year. Vose continued the tradition under Hayes, Garfield, and every other President up until his death in 1913. By then, it was outrageous that the President would have to buy his own turkey, and so different public organizations would gift turkeys to him to try to gain favor and display loyalty.
The modern history of the turkey pardon (I can’t believe I just wrote that) begins with Harry S Truman beginning a public display of the annual turkey gift. Truman had wanted to conserve agricultural resources for foreign aid programs like the Marshall plan. To encourage this, he instituted a campaign for “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Poultryless Thursdays” (the effectiveness of this campaign was not, to the best of my knowledge, ever determined). At any time this would have outraged the agricultural merchants, but 1947 was an exceptionally bad year to institute such propaganda, as three of the four biggest days in the poultry industry (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years) fell on Thursdays. To make it up to the industry, Truman began a formal ceremony where he would receive a turkey with great fanfare from the National Poultry and Egg Board. Truman, not known for his mercy, did not display the restraint Abraham Lincoln so nobly had. But, so began the tradition of presenting a turkey to the President, and for some reason it just kept going.
Dwight D Eisenhower accepted a turkey annually for both terms, but after two years of eating turkeys John F Kennedy had had enough of this, and returned the Turkey on November 18, 1963, saying either “let’s keep this one going” or “let’s keep this one growing” depending on which newspaper you read. It baffled citizens then and it baffles historians now, as he was killed four days later, without ever elaborating on the turkey’s pardon (someone work THAT into their JFK conspiracy theory). Lyndon Johnson found the act of mercy noble like Lincoln’s and made it tradition, one continued by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. It was at this time that the media dubbed the refusal the “turkey pardon,” a term which in 1987 Ronald Reagan embraced by issuing an official pardon for the turkey Charlie, and sent him to a petting zoo (which Reagan had done with previous turkeys granted to him, but without the official pardon). George HW Bush issued no formal pardons, and Bill Clinton only issued two (1997 and 2000), but his 2000 pardon was the first of an uninterrupted stream of Presidential turkey pardons, becoming an annual tradition during the George W Bush and Obama administrations.
Donald J Trump took the turkey pardon in a bold new direction. His turkeys were not sent to petting zoos or farms to live out the rest of their lives as was tradition, but rather are being sent to a non profit organization that brings food to underserved communities in Washington DC, Martha’s Table. Although this might sound unfair to the birds, these turkeys were bred to be eaten and don’t usually live much longer than a year after their pardon and suffer immense health issues, usually needing to be euthanized rather than dying a natural death. It may be better for our society to feed the needy than to prolong these birds lives.
Did I really just write four paragraphs about Presidents and poultry?