As our nation enters the Thanksgiving holiday season, turkey seems to be the bird that will be served on almost every American table. I wonder if we would see the turkey differently if Ben Franklin had been able to persuade people to follow his idea and make the turkey instead of the Bald Eagle, America’s national bird.
On June 20, 1782, the Congress of the United States adopted the Great Seal for the nation. The centerpiece of the seal is a majestic, sharp looking bald eagle. The eagle was apparently not Ben Franklin’s favorite choice for the position of National Bird.
From a letter written a year and a half after the Great Seal was adopted, Franklin wrote to his daughter expressing his personal thoughts about the making of the bald eagle into the status of National Bird. Note, Franklin did not begin a campaign to dethrone the eagle. He didn’t make a stink at all. He kept his personal feelings within the family.
Franklin was stationed in France at the time when he wrote to his daughter Sarah Bache, better known as Sally. In the letter he shared with her his doubt on the propriety of using the Bald Eagle to symbolize the “brave and honest Cincinnati of America”.
Read the excerpt from Mr. Franklin’s letter below:
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen 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 perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; 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.
“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & 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.”
Though he was not a huge fan of the Bald Eagle being posted in such a lofty position for the new nation, the turkey was not the only symbol for a National Animal he entertained. In his 1775 letter published in a magazine, he made a good case for the Rattlesnake as an appropriate symbol of “the temper and conduct of America.”
He made an official suggestion in 1776, while on the committee Congress appointed on July 4th to design the Great Seal. His idea was an action scene with Moses and Pharaoh, which the committee recommended for the reverse side of the Great Seal.
NOTE: “Because of their size, bald eagles are not concerned about threats from other birds. However, eagles are often chased by smaller birds, who are trying to protect their young. . . It was Benjamin Franklin’s observations of a bald eagle either ignoring or retreating from such mobbing that probably led to his claim of the bald eagle’s lack of courage.” – Bald Eagle Information
I’ve grown up with the Eagle as a symbol of pride for my nation and the turkey taking center stage on the dining table every Thanksgiving. I just can’t imagine it any other way.