A Brief History of Presidential Turkey Pardons

"Corn, I hereby grant you a full pardon."


This week, President Donald Trump pardoned a turkey named Corn, using the media gathering to also tout "America First" rhetoric and call COVID-19 "the China virus." In previous years, however, the playful affair was meant to be a respite from politics.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images


The exact origin of the ceremony is somewhat contested. Lore of the practice dates back to Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly granted clemency to a turkey in 1863. But was it an official pardon? Historians say, not quite.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Another rumor is that Harry Truman was the first to do a poultry pardon, but the White House Historical Association disagrees, saying he was just the first to receive a turkey from the National Turkey Federation, which still provides the annual bird.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

John F. Kennedy appears to be the first to use his presidential powers to spare a turkey. In 1963 he said, "Let's keep him going." He was also the first Commander in Chief to not eat the turkey.

Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images

The Nixon administration started the tradition of sending the birds off to a better life. First Lady Patricia Nixon sent the 1973 turkey to a children's farm. A few years later, First Lady Rosalynn Carter sent the 1978 pardon to a zoo.

Sending the turkey off to greener pastures than the White House kitchen became a tradition, but it wasn't until George H.W. Bush that the bird received the official pardon.


Let me assure you and this fine Tom Turkey that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table — not this guy. He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now.

President George H.W. Bush, in 1989

Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Subsequent presidents have followed suit. Barack Obama sent his first turkey, Courage, to "live out the rest of his days in peace and tranquility in Disneyland." (As these turkeys are bred to be eaten, they put on weight quickly and tend to have short lifespans.)


And in 2002, George W. Bush pardoned the first-ever female turkey, Katie.

And the tradition lived on in 2020 — but not without a few pointed quips from reporters. As Trump left the ceremony, a reporter asked if he planned to pardon himself. The president didn't answer.