I saw my first wild bald eagle about a month ago. I was in New York, driving along a highway that runs alongside the Hudson River. It flapped its huge wings once and then soared across the road, about 25 feet in the air.
The site took my breath away.
Thinking about that experience, it’s easy to understand how, in America, the bald eagle is loaded with symbolic meaning. Strength, majesty, freedom, courage, power—it’s all there.
Some think our country’s founders selected the eagle for religious reasons.
There are biblical verses about eagles they would have known and may have inspired them. In Ancient Rome, the eagle had strong military and political significance that might have also influenced their choice. And, of course, there are the eagles in Ancient Greek mythology.
See also: Bald Eagle Facts and Trivia
Whatever their true intent, the founders did well when they chose the bald eagle as our national symbol.
But not everyone was happy with the choice.
The popular story recalls Benjamin Franklin opposing the eagle… he wanted a turkey.
If you’ve never heard this story, ask around. It won’t take long before someone says, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
But is the story true?
Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey
When the United States was formed, it was common for countries to have an official seal. When attached to a document, the seal meant, “hey, this is important stuff.” It served as a symbol of the ruler and their governing power.
Not to be left out and wasting no time, the Continental Congress, on the evening of July 4, 1776, created a committee and directed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to design a seal, eventually called The Great Seal of the United States, for the new country.
The story tells us Franklin preferred the turkey over the eagle as our national symbol. But in 1776, when he had the chance, Franklin didn’t propose a turkey. The truth is, he proposed a biblical image of Moses and a pharaoh.
If anything, the story/myth might have favored a rattlesnake instead of a turkey.
According to the Journal of the American Revolution, six months prior to the formation of the committee, Franklin waxed poetic about the rattlesnake, asking if it wasn’t “a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”
So where did this myth come from?
See also: A Brief History of Bird Feeding
The Myth Exposed
Those who tell the story of Franklin’s turkey as if it were historical fact, and you’d be amazed at how many do, like to quote a passage from a letter he wrote to his daughter, Sarah Bache in 1785 (you can read the full letter here):
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… a rank coward…
It’s quite clear Franklin didn’t like the idea of an eagle as America’s national symbol. But does that mean he wanted a turkey instead?
According to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA, Franklin didn’t go on in his letter to promote the turkey. What he did write says, “the selected design looks more like a turkey.” (Emphasis added.)
After this passage, and according to Jimmy Stamp of Smithsonian.com, “Franklin then expounds on the respectability and morality of each bird, which really seems like such a Ben Franklin thing to do…”
If Franklin didn’t want a turkey, then how is it the idea that he did become so widespread?
See also: Eight Hot Spots for American Eagle Day
The Stories We Weave
According to Jimmy Stamp, The United State Diplomacy Center suggests that the myth of Franklin’s turkey first became popular because of a magazine cover.
The cover of the November 24, 1962, issue of the New Yorker magazine featured an illustration by Anatole Kovarsky. It shows a turkey, rather than an eagle, at the center of The Great Seal.
I couldn’t find out what inspired Kovarsky’s drawing except that in 1962, Thanksgiving was Thursday, November 22—two days before the issue’s publication.
Next came the 1969 Broadway musical 1776. It included a song called “The Egg,” written by Sherman Edwards. The actors, aided by the song’s lyrics, “reenact” the debate over whether the eagle, the dove, or the turkey should be America’s national symbol.
The actor playing Franklin champions the turkey.
Since 1776 won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, I’d say there’s a better than average chance it was this song that popularized the notion Franklin pushed for the turkey.
America’s National Symbol Today
After six years and three committees, the Great Seal was eventually finalized by Charles Thomson. Thomson combined in a unique design the elements suggested by previous committees.
The overall features of the Great Seal have remained relatively consistent since Thomson’s 1782 rendition. However, the style and details have changed several times.
The version we see today, with only slight changes, was created in 1885 by James Horton Whitehouse of the famous Tiffany and Co.
The front side features not only an eagle, but also several other images: arrows, stars, an olive branch, a shield, and a scroll with the familiar words E Pluribus Unum, meaning Out of Many, One.
The primary image on the reverse side is an unfinished pyramid. Above that is an eye within a triangle. There are also two additional Latin sayings—one above the pyramid and one below.
With only a few discrepancies, what these symbols mean is generally agreed upon by historians and people who know about these things.
For History Buffs… The Bigger Story
It may be a little off point, but it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t tell you the full story of Benjamin Franklin’s letter to his daughter.
What many don’t know is that Franklin’s comments about the eagle and turkey make up a small portion of an otherwise lengthy letter, not about America’s symbol, but about an entirely different matter.
Franklin’s gripe wasn’t about birds, symbols, or seals. It was about a new political organization.
The Society of Cincinnati
The Society of Cincinnati was formed in 1783 by officers of the Continental army and their French counterparts. Members claimed their purpose was “to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of American independence and to foster fellowship among its members.”
But many founders and influential political figures of the time didn’t trust this mission or its members. They viewed The Society as a threat to the Articles of Confederation.
Franklin didn’t trust The Society either. But, because of his position as an ambassador to France, he needed to be cautious in his criticism.
The “letter” to his daughter was actually meant as a satirical public essay against The Society. He never sent it to his daughter. Additionally, the French Count of Mirabeau, Gabriel Riqueti, advised Franklin not to make it public.
A Work of Satire
The critical part of the letter, and the one that best supports Franklin’s satirical intent, is rarely considered by misinformed sources. It immediately follows Franklin’s trashing of the eagle’s reputation:
He [the eagle] 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…
He [the turkey] 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 [sic] with a red Coat on.”
Put back into their original context, Franklin’s comments about the eagle and turkey seem less likely to be about birds than about a larger complaint.
Franklin’s letter was a criticism of what he saw as an attempt by The Society of Cincinnati to establish in America the undemocratic traditions and class distinctions of European aristocracy.