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America’s National Bird: Bald Eagle or Turkey?

Turkey or eagle - which bird better represents America?

By:  |  February 6, 2020  |    513 Words

Today, the bald eagle is the national bird of the United States – but was it the best choice? The American symbol of freedom could have been a turkey – if Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had his way. The legend goes that Franklin secretly preferred the turkey! But is this true, or just a myth?

Franklin’s Complaint

In January 1784, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter complaining about the bald eagle as a symbol. 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. 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.”

Historian Benson J. Lossing's interpretation of Franklin's seal design

Historian Benson J. Lossing’s interpretation of Franklin’s seal design

By contrast, he argued in the turkey’s favor:

“For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America … a bird of courage.”

But does this mean Franklin wanted the turkey to be America’s national bird? Not really – Franklin was remarking that an eagle used in a medal design looked more like a turkey. The medal wasn’t made for a national symbol but for a Revolutionary War veterans’ group.

America’s Bird

Since 1782 (two years before Benjamin Franklin’s letter), the U.S. great seal has depicted the bald eagle. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Continental Congress set Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams the task of designing the new nation’s seal. Franklin had proposed not a turkey, nor any other bird, but a scene of Moses from the Bible. His idea also featured the slogan, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

The three-man committee chose the image of Moses for the back of the seal, with the front image showing the union of the 13 colonies and various European peoples. The Continental Congress didn’t like the design, though.

U.S. Great Seal

U.S. Great Seal

The group could not come up with a design that pleased the Congress. The task was assigned to two more committees, who also failed to delight the congressional body. Picking and choosing the best elements from the three selections, the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, chose the eagle – designed by a Pennsylvania lawyer with artistic talent, William Barton.

On June 20, 1782, the American bald eagle was approved for the official seal of the new United States of America.

Benjamin Franklin may not have liked it, but the United States is represented by the seal: Strength, protection, and inclusion. The turkey may have been all of those things, but the eagle flew high, mighty, fierce, and proud.

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