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Presidential Pardon of Two Turkeys Follows Sentimental Tradition

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The two national Thanksgiving turkeys, Peanut Butter and Jelly, are photographed in the Rose Garden of the White House before a pardon ceremony last year. | Image by Susan Walsh, AP

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The White House announced last Tuesday that the traditional presidential pardoning of two turkeys is scheduled for today, November 21, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation.

Both turkeys that President Joe Biden will pardon hail from Circle S Ranch in Monroe, North Carolina. The last two presidents, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, also pardoned turkeys from North Carolina.

The tradition of presidents being gifted turkeys stretches back far in American history. These annual gifts symbolized patriotism, partisanship, and good cheer.

In the early 1900s, it became typical for someone or some organization to give a turkey as a gift to the president and his family to enjoy for Thanksgiving dinner.

Traditionally, presidents have received the tom turkeys from organizations like the American Legion and the Girl Scouts. They are usually presented sometime in the week, just before the holiday.

The National Turkey Federation (NTF) will present two turkeys to Biden this year. President Harry S. Truman was the first to receive a turkey specifically from these representatives of the nation’s turkey farmers and processors.

Since then, the NTF has presented a turkey to the residing president several times, according to the White House Historical Association.

While most turkeys have been pardoned, the routine has been followed inconsistently. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said his turkeys were headed to the dinner table.

It is thought Abraham Lincoln was the first to spare a turkey — given to him at Christmastime — unofficially granting him “clemency” in 1863. Although presidents like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan spared their turkeys and came close to declaring them officially “pardoned,” it wasn’t until George H.W. Bush became president that the event was formalized.

At President Bush’s turkey pardoning ceremony in 1989, while animal rights activists were picketing, Bush said, “Let me assure you and this fine tom turkey that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy.”

He assured them, “He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now — and [we will] allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

After Bush, pardoning became the norm. When turkeys were pardoned, they were sent to live on farms.

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