President Joe Biden pardons Peanut Butter, the national Thanksgiving turkey, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. Biden is joined by, from left, Phil Seger, Chairman of the National Turkey Federation, and Andrea Welp, turkey grower from Indiana.

How the presidential turkey pardon got its start

It’s customary for the president of the United States to spare the life of a turkey each year for Thanksgiving. But when and how did the strange tradition begin?

Harry Truman often gets credit for being the first U.S. president to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey. 

While Truman was the first to receive a ceremonial turkey from the chairman of the National Turkey Federation, the Truman Library has said there is no proof he pardoned the bird. The turkey presented to Truman in 1947 more than likely ended up on the White House dinner table.

Some versions of the history of the turkey pardon go back to 1863 during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. According to the White House Historical Association, Lincoln’s son Tad was particularly fond of a turkey that was intended to be cooked for Christmas — not Thanksgiving — dinner.

White House reporter Noah Brooks wrote later in 1865 that “a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life … [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.”

As far as Thanksgiving turkeys go, President John F. Kennedy was the first to pardon a bird sent over for dinner.

After being presented with a turkey complete with a sign that read “Good eating, Mr. President,” Kennedy responded by saying, “We’ll just let this one grow.” It was the LA Times that deemed the act a “presidential pardon.”

In 1987, Ronald Reagan was the first president to actually use the word “pardon” while being presented with the annual Thanksgiving turkey, according to NPR. George H.W. Bush later made the action a formal event.

Here’s a look at three decades of presidential turkey from Truman to Biden

President Harry S. Truman fingers the wattle of a 35-pound tom turkey from Oregon in the White House Rose Garden on Nov. 18, 1952. (Photo: Henry Griffin/AP)
President Dwight D. Eisenhower seems highly pleased with the 43-pound Kentucky colonel turkey presented to him at the White House on Nov. 17, 1954. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images)
Eisenhower with the 40-pound, broad-breasted tom turkey presented to him on Nov. 19, 1956. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images)
President John F. Kennedy admires a 55-pound turkey, which wears a sign reading “Good Eating, Mr. President!,” on Nov. 19, 1963. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images)
President Lyndon B. Johnson was presented with this 40-pound broad-breasted white tom turkey on Nov. 16, 1967. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images)
President Richard Nixon gives the annual pardon to a Thanksgiving turkey on Nov. 19, 1969. (Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images)
President Gerald Ford is presented with a Thanksgiving turkey on Nov. 20, 1975. (Photo: U.S. National Archives)
First lady Rosalynn Carter and first daughter Amy Carter pardoning a turkey on Nov. 21, 1978. (Photo: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum)
President George H.W. Bush pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey on Nov. 24, 1992. (Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP)
President Bill Clinton looks on as turkey industry executive Robert Strickler holds a 50-pound turkey presented to the president on Nov. 23, 1994. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)
President George W. Bush pardoning a turkey on Nov. 19, 2001. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Obama, with Sasha and Malia, pardoning a turkey on Nov. 21, 2012. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
U.S. President Donald Trump gives a presidential ‘pardon’ to the National Thanksgiving Turkey Butter during the traditional event with first lady Melania Trump (R) in the Rose Garden of the White House Nov. 26, 2019 in Washington. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden pardons the turkey ‘Peanut Butter’ during the White House Thanksgiving turkey pardon in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on November 19, 2021. (Olivier Doulliery/AFP via Getty Images)

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