Pardoning the Turkey

vintage-thanksgiving-turkey-with-american-eagle-and-shield1The joke making the rounds of Facebook this month goes something like this: “Your November not going well? Look on the bright side. At least you’re not a turkey.” Awful, I know, but still funny.

I must admit I have not always felt compassion for the poultry that might have been our national symbol if Ben Franklin had gotten his way. Picture this: instead of the noble bald eagle, a tom with his tail feathers fanned out would be on our currency and centered on the Great Seal – fat body, tiny head, warty red flesh and all. Kind of meh, don’t you think?04_great-seal

So why did Franklin favor the turkey over the bald eagle? The website Great gives us this in Franklin’s own words:

Franklin’s Letter to His Daughter (excerpt)

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…BenFranklin &

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on. [1]

Instead of being the symbol of our nation, the turkey became the symbol of our most family oriented holiday, Thanksgiving, and in so doing, added a footnote to our national sense of humor and sense of fair play. Each year, the leader of the free world, who also happens to occupy the White House, conducts a ceremony on the mansion’s lawn. Ever wonder how the Pardoning of the National Bird came to be?

Here is what the White House Historical Association has to say on the subject:harry-truman-turkey-pardoning

The official “pardoning” of White House turkeys is an interesting White House tradition that has captured the imagination of the public in recent years. It is often stated that President Lincoln’s clemency to a turkey recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks was the origin for the pardoning ceremony. Brooks noted,

“Recently White House mythmakers have claimed that President Harry S. Truman began this amusing holiday tradition. However, the Truman Library & Museum disputes the notion that Truman was the first president to pardon the holiday bird. Reports of turkeys as gifts to American presidents can be traced to the 1870s, when Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began sending well fed birds to the White House. The First Families did not always feast upon Vose’s turkeys, but the yearly offering gained his farm widespread publicity and became a veritable institution at the White House. At Thanksgiving 1913, a turkey-come-lately from Kentucky shared a few minutes of fame with the fine-feathered Rhode Islander. Soon after, in December, Horace Vose died, thus ending an era.

By 1914, the opportunity to give a president a turkey was open to all comers, and poultry gifts were frequently touched with patriotism, partisanship, and glee. In 1921, an American Legion post furnished bunting for the crate of a gobbler en route from Mississippi to Washington, while a Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a turkey as a flying ace, complete with goggles. First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from a Vermont Girl Scout in 1925. The turkey gifts had become established as a national symbol of good cheer.

The focus on Harry Truman as the originator of the turkey pardon stems from his being the first president to receive a turkey from the poultry and egg board. From September to November 1947, announcements that the government was encouraging “poultryless Thursdays” grabbed national headlines. Homemakers, restaurant owners, and the poultry industry deflated the effort in time for Thanksgiving, but not before poultry growers had sent crates of live chickens— “Hens for Harry”— to the White House in protest. The turkey they presented to President Truman that December promoted the poultry industry and established an annual news niche that endures today.

In December 1948, Truman accepted two turkeys and remarked that they would “come in handy” for Christmas dinner. There was clearly no plan for these birds to receive a presidential pardon. The Washington Post used both “pardon” and “reprieve” in a 1963 article in which President Kennedy said of the turkey, “Let’s keep him going.” The formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped,

“Reprieve,” “keep him going,” or “pardon”: it’s all the same for the turkey, as long as he doesn’t end up on the president’s holiday table. [2]

I have come to love this tradition of pardoning the turkey! Most American families have Thanksgiving traditions of their own. I hope that you and yours are enjoying a good holiday together. If circumstances have kept you from being with those you love, then I hope that the peace of the holiday is with you.

So, tell us. What are your family’s Thanksgiving traditions?

1., accessed 11/22/2014.

2., accessed 11/22/2014.