The American symbol of freedom could have been a Turkey – if Founding Father Benjamin Franklin had his way. As he argued:
“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, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”
But it was the nation’s first president, General George Washington, who got his way instead. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress set Franklin, Washington, and John Adams the task of designing the new nation’s seal. Picking and choosing the best design elements from the three selections, Secretary of the Congress Thomson chose the eagle for which Washington was pushing. Washington, however, did not design the eagle. Rather, it was a Pennsylvania lawyer with artistic talent, William Barton.
On June 20, 1782, the American Bald Eagle was chosen as the emblem for the official seal of the new United States of America. The Eagle has held a place of reverence in the heart of Americans for well over 200 years. Yet by the 1970s, the Bald Eagle was becoming a rare species in the home of the brave. In the early and middle 20th century, the Bald Eagle was near extinction – ravaged by pesticides, habitat loss, and poaching.
In 1930 the magazine Popular Science said the eagles had been diminished so much that soon they would “be seen only on coins and the coat of arms of the United States unless drastic action” was taken to preserve them. Federal protections ensued, including the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prevents any disruption or disturbance of the birds or their habitats. By 2007, after government’s assistance, the eagles were finally taken off the endangered list.
The Audubon Society has released new counts of the species and can account for more than 30,000. And you can find the Bald Eagle in every U.S. state with the exception of Hawai’i.
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.