“Let’s Keep Him Going.” The Presidential Pardon of Turkeys
President John F. Kennedy, November 19, 1963
(Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA)
Turkey is not directly mentioned to have been included in a remembrance of “Little” Rachel Jackson Lawrence, Andrew Jackson’s granddaughter, in an interview with Will Allen Dromgoole of the Nashville Banner, “Christmas at The Hermitage,” Dec. 1907, that “everyone was treated to a wonderful dinner including: ham, mutton, beef, pig, chicken, or other lighter meats,….” Since plenty of wild gobblers roam The Hermitage today, perhaps “lighter meats” included turkey.
Turkeys as gifts to American presidents is attributed to when Horace Vose, a poultry dealer from Rhode Island, began sending turkeys to the White House in the 1870s. Various First Families feasted upon the gifts, though others did not.
Following Vose’s death in 1913, the opportunity to send turkeys to the White House was available to others. This offering was quickly established as a national symbol of good cheer and fun. One year, a Harding Girls Club in Chicago outfitted a gobbler as a flying ace wearing goggles. In 1947, circumstances led to the Poultry and Egg National Board gifting the presidential turkey. The National Turkey Federation typically provides the bird today.
Pardoning the turkey occurred sporadically following President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 clemency to a gifted bird that his son did not want to see die. In 1973, President Richard Nixon’s wife Patricia began the practice of sending the turkey to a farm. President George H.W. Bush made the presidential pardon of the White House turkey official in 1989. The ceremony continues today, followed by the turkey being sent to a university to be cared for by veterinarians and poultry science students.
Sources: whitehousehistory.org; eatturkey.org (National Turkey Federation); obamawhitehouse.archives.gov