Thanksgiving is a time when many guests gather around the dinner table and feast as part of the day’s activities. Another regular Thanksgiving guest, however, is not around the table but atop it, and not at his own choice: the turkey.
The turkey is as much a part of the Thanksgiving story as we know it today as Berkeley Plantation and the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, and indeed it is part of the American story.
Although accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving at Plymouth colony indicate only that “fowl” was eaten, not turkeys specifically, they eventually became a frequent presence on dinner tables. The reason is not surprising: the birds were quite plentiful. An article on Britannica.com notes that at least 10 million turkeys are estimated to have lived on the continent when Europeans arrived. By the 20th century, their numbers had shrunk to a mere 200,000, but today millions of wild turkeys once again roam the United States, thanks in part to the conservation efforts of the Pittman-Robertson Act sponsored by U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson of Lexington.
A popular myth holds that Benjamin Franklin suggested the turkey as our national symbol instead of the bald eagle. Although he did not in fact offer that proposal, he did make favorable comparisons of the turkey to the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter, he mused about a medal for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization made up of Continental Army officers. The eagle on the medal looked similar to a turkey, prompting Franklin to observe:
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”
For the record, I do not share Franklin’s low opinion of the bald eagle. As for the turkey, Franklin continued:
“For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours . . . He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
We can wonder whether Franklin ever expressed his thoughts on the matter to George Washington. Perhaps he did not share Franklin’s affection for the bird, because while the first president, and as Henry Lee said, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” Washington was not the first president to pardon a turkey.
The precedent for the White House turkey pardon was set by Abraham Lincoln, who spared the life of a turkey at the behest of his son. Later presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan held their own events pardoning turkeys, and George H.W. Bush made it an annual occasion starting in 1989. Several of the turkeys participating in the ceremony in recent years retired afterward to Virginia Tech.
But if George Washington had little to say on turkeys, he had plenty to say on Thanksgiving. During his first year in office, 1789, he called for Thursday, November 26 to be set aside as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
His proclamation went on to list the blessings the young country enjoyed, from its new Constitution to its civil and religious liberty, and called on Americans to offer thanks and supplication for the country’s future.