With Thanksgiving time upon us, and the smell of pies wafting on cool winds, it’s time for the annual presidential turkey pardon. A time honored tradition, probably instituted by the venerable George Washington or Abraham Lincoln and passed down from president to president, right? Well, in fact, the turkey pardon might not have the long history that you thought. Read on to find out more.
The history of the annual presidential turkey pardon, in fact, begins just a bit more than 20 years ago with George H.W. Bush. Before that, a few other presidents had spared the life of a Tom or two, but never in a ritualized manner or “official” capacity. Supposedly, President Lincoln saved a turkey when his son begged him to free the fowl from Christmas dinner. President Kennedy returned a turkey to the farm in 1963, saying “we’ll just let that one grow.” And legend has it that President Truman issued a pardon to a turkey in 1947, but the Truman library cannot find any truth behind that story.
Then, on November 14, 1989, the first President Bush declared that the official bird that year “had been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” And with that, a new tradition had begun.
Cute stories and turkeys aside, the presidential pardon power is a fascinating aspect of American law. As anyone who has taken high school social studies knows, the president has relatively few enumerated powers, unlike Congress. Most of what Congress can do comes directly from Article I of the Constitution or elsewhere within the text. Article II, however, only lists a few specific powers for the president. Nevertheless, throughout the history of the office, presidents have assumed certain powers are implied by their duties as the head of the executive branch and commander-in-chief.
The pardon power is one of those few enumerated presidential powers in the Constitution. Article II, Section 2 holds that “The President … shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.”
Interestingly, the Constitution does not provide many significant checks on this authority. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court can prevent a presidential pardon. All the Constitution says is that the pardon must be for a federal crime (“offenses against the United States”) and cannot be used for impeachment.
It is curious that our Founding Fathers, who were so concerned with building checks and balances into the Constitution, gave this authority solely to the President. How did this happen? What does it mean for presidents and the presidency? How has the pardon power been used and/or developed throughout history?
If you’re interested in questions like these, we have many titles at Tarlton about executive power that can help you answer them. First, if you want to read a book that is critical toward the modern’s president’s use of the pardon power, look at The Presidential Pardon Power by Jeffrey Crouch. Then, if presidential power in general interests you, check out The Law of Presidential Power by Peter Shane, The Unitary Executive by Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, Crisis and Command by John Yoo, or Madison’s Nightmare also by Peter Shane.
Finally, if you want to know more about Tom’s Presidential Pardon, read “The Definitive History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon” from Whitehouse.gov.