Today, the bald eagle is the national symbol of the United States – but was this bird a good choice?
The bald eagle is shown on the U.S. Great Seal, but the American symbol of freedom could have been a turkey – if Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had his way. The legend goes that Franklin secretly thought the bald eagle was a bad choice, and that he prefered the turkey!
In January 1784, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter complaining about early designs for the great seal. He said, “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.” He accused the “lazy” bird of stealing fish from other species and called the bald eagle a “coward.”
He said the turkey would be a much better choice. He wrote, “For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America … He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a bird of courage…”
Did Franklin really want the turkey to symbolize the United States? Maybe not. In his letter, he criticized a design with a bald eagle on it because he thought the drawing looked more like a turkey.
After the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress asked Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to design the new nation’s seal. Franklin suggested not a turkey, but a scene of Moses from the Bible. The group decided to put the picture of Moses on the back side of the seal, and a German imperial eagle on the front. Congress didn’t like the idea and decided to try more designs.
In the end, the great seal that we use today was proposed by Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress.
The great seal represents the United States in the ideas of strength, protection, and inclusion. The turkey may have represented all of those things, but the eagle flew high, mighty, fierce, and proud.