The Turkey Pardon: A Unique American Tradition

It’s almost Thanksgiving!

On our Facebook page, we post a new legal term and definition every Tuesday, called #LegalTermTuesday. We know that legal jargon can be strange, confusing, and frustrating, and we’re here to help! If you’re on Facebook and want to give us a follow, click here. If you’re not on Facebook, or simply just don’t want to follow us, we forgive you — which leads us to today’s special #LegalTermTuesday blog!

This Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama and his staff will gather outside the White House. President Obama will receive a turkey, but instead of deciding how to cook it for dinner, he will instead pardon it, allowing it the opportunity to live out its days on a nearby farm.

In the legal world, a pardon is “the use of executive power . . . to forgive a person charged with a crime or convicted of a crime, thus preventing any prosecution or removing any remaining penalties or punishments.” A president or governor can give a pardon. For example, an accomplice in a robbery may be pardoned in exchange for helping officials locate the person who planned the heist. When someone is pardoned, their rights to vote, run for public office, and serve on a jury are restored. Pardons may be full, partial, or like in the example of the robbery accomplice, conditional.

What does this have to do with turkeys?

While turkeys throughout history may have not committed crimes, many have faced the punishment of becoming someone’s delicious meal. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s young son is rumored to have been the first to notice this injustice. When the family was presented with a turkey for Christmas, he insisted that the turkey not be slaughtered. However, the tradition of turkey pardoning didn’t come into play until much later.

Some believe that Harry Truman was the first to kick off the turkey tradition. During the Great Depression, he called upon American families to eat less poultry. This upset egg and poultry companies. To show their displeasure, many poultry producers sent live turkeys to the White House on Thanksgiving. This marked the beginning of the tradition, but President Truman’s turkeys were not lucky enough to receive a pardon.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy said that he would not kill the turkey presented to him for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, he was assassinated before Thanksgiving, and did not get the chance, if he was planning on it, to do an official pardoning ceremony. Richard Nixon sent the turkeys he received to local farms instead of killing them. However, he never gave any official pardons.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the turkey pardoning became an official tradition, when George H.W. Bush held an official ceremony at the White House. Since then, every United States president has done the same, making one lucky bird the TOTUS, or Turkey of the United States!

Happy Thanksgiving!


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