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The History of the Thanksgiving Pardon

Wild Tom Turkey In SpringHave you or your students ever been curious about the annual presidential turkey pardon?  The White House Historical Association sheds some light on the annual tradition of the White House “Pardoning” of the Thanksgiving Turkey.  

According to the article Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkeywritten by White House Historian Betty Monkman, reports of turkeys as gifts to American presidents date back to the late nineteenth century.  Horace Vose, a Rhode Island poultry dealer, began sending plump turkeys to the White House, giving Vose widespread publicity for his farm.

After Vose’s death in 1913, the opportunity to give a turkey to a President was open to everyone, and “poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship, and glee.The turkey gifts had become established as a national symbol of good cheer.”

The practice gained further notoriety under President Harry S. Truman.  While some historians dispute that Truman was the first administration to pardon a turkey, Truman was the first President to receive a turkey from the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation in 1947 in response to the government’s encouragement of “poultryless Thursdays” - particularly distressing to poultry farmers as that year Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day were on all on Thursdays.  


The idea was quickly deflated, but not before poultry farmers were sending Truman crates of live chickens they dubbed “Hens for Harry.” When Truman presented the White House turkey that year, it became a symbol of goodwill toward the nation’s poultry industry.

Decades later, in 1981, the practice of sending the presentation turkey to a farm became tradition under Ronald Reagan. According to Monkman, “The turkey ceremony also became a source of satire and humor for reporters.”

The formalities of pardoning a turkey were solidified in 1991 when George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped, "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 granted a Presidential pardon as of right now -- and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here.”


nterested in learning more?  Read Monkman’s full article about the practice of pardoning the White House Turkey.

On behalf of all of us at NationsClassroom, we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving - full of whatever poultry or “poultryless” traditions that are important to you.  



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