Abraham Lincoln was the first president to pardon a turkey—but it wasn't for Thanksgiving!

By Emily VanSchmus
September 03, 2020
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It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without the classic traditions—the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, green bean casserole, and the presidential Turkey pardon. If you haven’t heard of the turkey pardon, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Each year, the president chooses one turkey to be “saved” from becoming someone’s Thanksgiving dinner. I grew up hearing about it, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized it’s kind of a strange tradition. 

So as I start making plans for this Thanksgiving, I wanted to find out how this odd tradition got started. The very first president on record to save a bird from becoming a Thanksgiving main dish was Abraham Lincoln, although the official tradition did not begin until more than 120 years after his presidency ended. 

President George W Bush pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving
Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It turns out, the very first turkey pardon wasn’t actually associated with Thanksgiving at all! When Abraham Lincoln lived in the White House, sometime between 1861 and 1865, his young son Tad became very attached to a live turkey that was meant to become the family’s Christmas dinner. Tad would put a leash on the bird and walk him around the house like a dog. Upon seeing how much his son valued the turkey, President Lincoln decided the bird should be saved—so the family ate something else for Christmas dinner and Tad was allowed to keep the bird as a pet. 

Over the next hundred years, it became customary for the president to be gifted a turkey for their family to eat for Thanksgiving dinner. During Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, famed poultry dealer Horace Vose began the tradition by delivering his best turkey to the White House each November. After his death, the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board began sponsoring the turkey for the president’s family.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1989, President George H.W. Bush stepped outside the White House to receive his annual turkey—but instead of eating it for dinner, the president announced he would be pardoning the bird. He told reporters, “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 ever since that day, it’s become a tradition for the President to issue an official pardon for a Thanksgiving turkey

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