Among the President of the United States’s powers is the pardon, the “unlimited” ability to grant clemency for federal criminal offenses. This clemency can take two forms. First, a commutation or reduction of the punishment for one convicted of a federal crime. Second, forgiveness of transgressions. This eliminates the punishment that has or would have been assigned for an offense. When someone refers to a “pardon” they typically mean the latter form of clemency. According to U.S. case law as of Burdick v. United States, accepting a pardon is an admission of guilt for one’s offenses, hence why pardons differ from immunity. Typically, at least in recent administrations, presidents utilize the pardoning power near the end of their term – 84% of Donald Trump’s, 61% of Barack Obama’s, 56% of Bill Clinton’s and 49% of George H.W. Bush’s pardons came during their final year of office.
However, there is one pardon which now occurs annually. Throughout the history of the United States, presidents often received turkeys as gifts. Usually, these birds were slaughtered and eaten with holiday dinners. The first to spare one was Abraham Lincoln at the insistence of his son Thomas or “Tad.” This turkey gifting evolved into the “National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation” during Harry Truman’s administration. Occasionally, presidents would spare the turkeys presented to them, either returning them to the farm or sending them to a zoo. However, beginning with George H.W. Bush in 1989, the ceremony evolved to include the president pardoning the gift turkeys, sparing them from serving as Thanksgiving dinner. At the time of my writing on the afternoon of November 20th, President Joe Biden pardoned the turkeys Liberty and Bell just a few hours ago.
Obviously, the ceremony is for fun. Presidents regularly use the occasion to make (groan-inducing) jokes to the press. For instance, in 2022 following better than anticipated mid-term elections for the Democrats, Biden’s quips included remarks that the ballot boxes were not “stuffed,” that there was no “fowl play” and the only “red wave” would be if his dog knocked over the cranberry sauce.
But ceremonies, even when unserious, often reveal something about our underlying attitudes and beliefs. The traditional presidential turkey pardon, for instance, may be working to assuage some tense feelings about our nonchalance in making a cooked bird the centerpiece of our holiday gatherings. Sure, about 45 million turkeys are killed each year to produce Thanksgiving dinner, but at least these two turkeys aren’t!
Given the evolution of the presidential turkey pardon, it might be worth investigating what else could be going on here. What other symbolism is behind this act? Recall that accepting a pardon, at least according to current case law in the United States, is an admission of guilt. So, by extending pardons to turkeys each year, the sitting president seems to imply that the birds have committed some kind of offense. Further still, the apparent punishment for this crime is death, given that turkeys pardoned each year are spared from slaughter.
What exactly is the offense for which the birds are being pardoned? Well, the pardon is just a ceremony – there is no paperwork and it does not count in the tally of a president’s pardons. So, we should not search through U.S. code to find the precise law that turkeys violate each year. Further, the turkeys are not wrong-doers in the same way that human offenders are.
Perhaps we can clarify something about the “offense” by considering how the pardoned turkeys are selected. The turkeys typically come from the farm of the current chairperson of the National Turkey Federation. In this case, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Liberty and Bell were chosen due to their extroverted nature. Thus, it seems somewhat arbitrary which turkeys get selected – there is a dash of practical consideration but it is otherwise essentially random. So, it appears that whatever “offense” the pardoned turkeys commit must be one that all members of the species share.
Notice, further, what the use of the term pardon implies about the turkeys given to the president during the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. When pardoned the turkeys are spared from slaughter. Thus, death seems to be a punishment according to the pretense of the ceremony. But why is execution an appropriate response to whatever offense that all domestic turkeys commit? And, further, what is gained by pardoning some of the turkeys?
To answer this question, we must consider some potential ways of justifying punishment. Presumably, a pardon is justified in cases where the justification of punishment does not hold. Some justifications of punishment are consequentialist in nature. They look forward and assess what will happen if punishment occurs. The idea being that, if it produces better consequences in the future, then punishment is appropriate. By contrast, a pardon would be justified when it would produce better consequences.
For instance, consider Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. When delivering his decision to the nation, Ford explained that he felt it would significantly damage the nation to witness what would certainly be a long and rigorously reported prosecution of a former president, stating that “My concern is the immediate future of this great country.” Thus, on Ford’s rationale, a pardon was justified because punishment in this case would produce worse consequences.
What follows if we accept turkey pardons on consequentialist grounds? Well, it implies that it is better, all things considered, that these particular turkeys are not slaughtered. Recall that the selection of turkeys pardoned is effectively random. Thus, the consequentialist justification of presidential turkey pardons seems to imply that, for any given domestic turkey, it would be better all things considered to spare that turkey from slaughter. But if we accept this justification of the presidential turkey pardon, then Thanksgiving, for most, is in moral peril – the process required to produce the centerpiece of their meal, all things considered, produces worse outcomes.
However, punishments may also be justified on retributivist grounds. Retributivist justifications of punishment instead look backwards at the past behavior to assess the appropriateness of punishment. Typically, retributivists believe that punishment is justified when it is a matter of desert, in other words, that the offender deserves to be punished. So, on this justification of punishment, a pardon is appropriate when our treatment of the offender fails to fit the crime.
Suppose we accept the retributivist justification of a pardon in the case of turkeys. What does this reveal? Well, recall again that the turkeys punished are selected on an arbitrary basis. The only factors in play are the appearance, temperament, and home farm of the turkeys. None seems like a morally relevant factor when determining if an individual deserves punishment. Thus, much like with the consequentialist judgment, the pardoned turkeys are as good as any other turkey in terms of desert; if they do not deserve the punishment of death, as per their pardoning, then seemingly no other turkey deserves it either.
Ultimately, analysis of the turkey pardons leaves the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in an uncomfortable position. According to the inner logic of pardoning, it appears that the slaughter of any particular turkey is unjustified. If sparing Liberty and Bell produces better consequences or avoids an unjust desert, then it seems this reasoning should hold true for every turkey – what’s good for the two is good for the 45 million.
Of course, one might charge that I’ve taken this ceremony far too seriously. It’s just some quirky fun to kick off the holiday season! The president is not actually pardoning a turkey, and to analyze the situation as though they were misconstrues what’s really happening.
But even unserious ceremonies – especially those which occur annually in the full view of a nation – deserve analysis. Presidents did not always spare their gift turkey, nor was the act always ceremonial, nor was the act always framed as a pardon. The increasing spectacle, coverage, and linking of this observance to the powers of the office of the president invites us to seriously consider the message it sends, lest we uphold traditions that send the wrong message.